Tourism was on the minds of attendees at last month’s Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce annual legislative breakfast. As is usually the case at such events, the politicians stressed the positive and the audience politely listened. But the mood seemed subdued. Maybe the coffee wasn’t potent enough, or, more likely, it was because many of those attending rely on tourism for the bulk of their revenue and there was talk about business being down in 2023. The reasons cited were vague – Rainy weather?  Inflation? Not enough promotion? No one offered any data to back up the general feeling that it’s been an off year. So we decided to ask an expert – Lea Filson, president and CEO of See Plymouth, to find out more about the state of Plymouth tourism, which is its biggest industry, even though some think it’s treated like an afterthought by many, including local and state officials.

Like many topics the Plymouth Independent will cover, consider this an introduction to something we’ll return to regularly.  

The conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Figuring out who’s in charge of promoting and coordinating tourism in town is confusing. There’s See Plymouth, but also Destination Plymouth and the Plymouth County Development Council. Please help me understand.

The way I explain it to people is that those other two are our funders. The state funds the Plymouth Community Development Council and then the money passes through us. Destination Plymouth is funded by the Town of Plymouth. Our job is to keep track of what we’re doing all the time so we can show each partner what we’ve done in the county as well as the town. Our third source, which is very important, is our members. There’s been a lot of talk about membership, and that it’s really not appropriate [to charge for it]. I don’t believe that it’s inappropriate. When somebody invests in something, they believe in it more, and they push more to try to help their own town.

Investing in tourism is a very smart thing because it’s the number one industry in both the town and the county. Our job is only to promote everything, and to bring visitors in.

At the Chamber breakfast, there was talk of business being down 20 percent this year, which seems like a broad-brush figure.

I understand why they’re all so bummed out right now, and it’s a ton of different factors, like we had Water Street dug up. And look at the economy right now. People are being very careful about what they’re spending. Not as many people are traveling because all the costs have gone up so. It’s hard for businesses to realize the same amount of profit because their staff costs more and their food costs more. Everything costs more.

We also had a lot of rainy weekends.

A ton of rainy weather, which always makes a huge difference here because this is such a walkable area. When it rains, people just don’t come. But that said, we have not had that bad of a year tourism-wise. We’ve had fewer visitors this year than we did last year, but the spend is higher. Those who have come spent more. We won’t see the numbers for 2023 until later.

Shouldn’t Plymouth do OK in a tentative economy? It can be a day trip, with a lot of amenities at a lower price compared with traveling to a resort destination.

That is true. Day trips are very important to us. We still have more people spending the night than day trippers, but not by much. In some months, it’s more day trippers. But at any rate, we constantly look at all those things. We subscribe to a data group that is geofencing everything we ask for, not just the area, but specific places.

“The history is what makes us stand apart. We can’t be tired of it,” says Lea Filson, president and CEO of the tourism organization See Plymouth. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

What do you mean by that? Some people reading this won’t be familiar with geofencing.

Geofencing is when they use a satellite to circle an area and collect data. They get data from credit cards and all of that. They can tell me, for instance, how many people visited Plimoth Patuxet during whatever time period I want. They can tell me what they spent. They can tell me what they spent it on. They can tell me if they stayed in a hotel by tracking credit card usage. Nobody tracks you by your name or your address. It’s just your IP address.

What you see is that the majority of our tourism comes from the region. And the reason is because I don’t get enough funding that I can advertise nationally as well as I’d like. So you take what you have and do the best you can with it. We look at the towns in our region that we get the most visits from. We go after those even more. That’s how we look at all of this all the time. You’re just really targeting your spends on where you’re going to get the most return. You have to look at what you have that’s very different and unique. And for us, of course, it’s our history. Plymouth Rock, like it or not, is an international symbol. I mean, it literally is known the world over.

I wrote a Boston Globe Magazine piece in defense of Plymouth Rock. It symbolizes something far larger than its physical size, for better and worse. The history of Plymouth is complicated.

Yes, our history is very complicated, and to add to the complication, every generation takes a different stance. Like during Victorian times, it was totally romanticized. We’re in a time right now where everybody’s criticizing everything. And so, we’re looking a lot more closely at the actual origin stories and all of that. Our job here is not to get into politics. Our job here is to make coming here the most enjoyable experience anyone can have. Are we positive about the history? Yes, of course. But everybody that deals with that history has made a lot of changes. They have started showing much more of the entire Mayflower story. It’s not just focused on the Pilgrims. Even though some of it is difficult, it’s still fascinating and there’s a lot to learn from it. It’s actually, in some ways, more interesting than the simplistic picture that we were taught in school when I was a kid.

Maybe the town has relied too heavily on the Pilgrim story? I wonder whether it’s caused people not to innovate enough when it comes to attracting visitors. There’s more to the town than its history.

I really can’t speak to before I was here. But I’ve been here about five years now and I do not feel that way at all. I just think [people don’t] see all of our campaigns. We do ads geared for the LGBTQ market. We do ads geared for families. We do ads geared for all sorts of things. The history is what makes us stand apart. We can’t be tired of it. We can complain about it, but it’s still here and it’s a foundational American story that is very important for us.

We have people that make yearly pilgrimages here because of that history. And so, a lot of other markets don’t have that. It’s a huge advantage for us.

What about this endemic issue: the separation between waterfront and downtown businesses. Merchants on Main and Court streets complain that not enough is done to direct tourists up the hill.

It’s a very complicated issue and I don’t blame anyone for making the decisions they’re making but at some point we have to all sit down together and say OK, if tourism is going to continue being the number one industry, we have to do things to stand up and meet it. And that means as a group, we have to decide we’re going to stay open more hours. We’re going to be open and not keep closing willy-nilly. Before COVID, at least people’s hours were kind of steady, but now, some just open and close at will.

That came up at the Chamber breakfast. One of the speakers criticized business owners for not being open enough hours.

I went to a meeting in Hyannis, and I was sitting in a restaurant and I could hear people at the next table discussing what they were going to do and the places to go and all of that. And one of them said to the other, “Well, yeah, Plymouth is OK, but, but don’t go on a Monday or Tuesday – nothing’s open.”

Other challenges?

One is signage. The town has never appointed any one group to do it. So as a result, we’ve got a mishmash of signage all over that makes no sense most of the time. Some of it’s so outdated it’s embarrassing, but we can’t seem to get our arms around that. If we’re going to really, truly promote our historic district, we need to have signage that matches.

The signage that always strikes me is the “do not enter” sign at the bottom of Coles Hill at North Street. That says it all. Also, if you need to use a restroom around here, good luck.

Yes. I’m not saying to everybody, “Open your bathrooms to the public,” but how welcoming is it when every single store says “no public restroom?” The state won’t open its at the times you need them to open and the town won’t open the bathrooms on Russell Street [at town hall] except during certain times. That’s something we all need to address and say, OK, if we’re going to have these things, we’ve got to maintain them and operate them.

This crudely written sign greets people looking for a public restroom at the 1749 Courthouse Museum building downtown. It directs them to restrooms at town hall that are only open limited hours. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

And the bathroom in the 1749 Courthouse Museum building, as gross as it was, has closed. Someone duct-taped a sloppy handwritten note on the door directing people to Russell Street. Not a good look.

Another thing, Mark, are the hills [from the waterfront to downtown]. It’s tough to walk up those hills. We were happy to bring in Ride Circuit [Ride Circuit provides free rides around town in electric vehicles.] Because at least then you can grab one to get up the hill. Look at what Provincetown has done. They installed a funicular that goes up to the Pilgrim Monument. I’m not saying that we should have moving sidewalks, but we could have one area where there could be help for people [who need it].

Beyond Ride Circuit, this past summer, we added a group of ambassadors. Their entire job is to be downhill. They have two main things they have to do. One is look at buses and keep a list of where they’re coming from so that we can start contacting them to get more group business. The second thing is to send people up that hill, and that’s what they do. We’re doing the things that we should be doing to help, but again, we all need to talk and work together and support each other. Coordination continues to be difficult.

I have to ask about the cruise ship visits during the summer that inexplicably drew some criticism.

It was a pilot program this first year and the town is negotiating with them [American Cruise Lines] to make it permanent. [Those talks include having the ship berth at the more centrally-located State Pier instead of the town wharf area.]

Did you think it was a successful pilot?

I thought it was very successful. I was disappointed that there is a group that constantly keeps putting out information that’s not correct in order to try to kill it. And it’s a shame because it was incredible. In fact, we I heard from ACL later that when they did their surveys with passengers, Plymouth was their favorite place that they stopped at. It’s a great opportunity for us. It brings a very affluent crowd.

Speaking of affluence, Plymouth doesn’t have a luxury hotel outside of Mirbeau, which isn’t located near the sites most people want to see. Why is that?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that we’re really missing out on having that market. It’s an experience that you can get in other places. You don’t have to go to the luxury properties, but they raise the standards. That’s why American Cruise Lines is important – because it’s a different customer and it’s going to help us all to raise our standards. We desperately need the luxury market to be here.

Do you think there’s a stand-alone attitude among some businesses? By that I mean that if I have a place on the waterfront that does great during the summer, that might be all I really care about. I don’t want to participate in promoting the area, especially year round. Which, of course, ignores the fact that if Plymouth becomes a hotter destination, everyone benefits.

I can tell you that we’ve got people with the best locations that refuse to join or support tourism because they don’t need to. Strength in numbers, always. I’ve never been one that felt that you should stand alone. I think that it just works better if everybody participates.

We Have Questions is the Plymouth Independent’s version of the classic Q&A column, a forum for conversations with local people of interest. We’re not worried about running out of subjects. Plymouth is full of fascinating characters – including entrepreneurs, public officials, educators, artists, musicians, authors, athletes, volunteers, nonprofit leaders, and many more. The idea is to have a casual conversation that steers clear of cliched questions and canned responses. If you know someone you think we should have a sit-down with, send us a note at If you have the subject’s contact information, all the better. You can even suggest yourself – we won’t tell.

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