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Greater Mystic can be greater

By PETER GLANKOFF

Publication: The Day

Published October 06. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Cook/Day file photo
A kayaker paddles up to the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport.

Kind words of encouragement, praise for real and imagined accomplishments, and wishes for a bright future from friends and colleagues fade into memory as my wife and I wrap up 17 years living and working in Southern New England.

Yes, Southern New England. If you don't live here, do you know where it is? What it's about? That it's a new place to discover? Bear with me here for a minute.

When I first met the Mystic Seaport recruiter at a New York hotel in 1996, I had never even visited Mystic. She told me straight up that the museum was not interested in a candidate winding down from some high pressure city gig hoping for a soft landing in a sleepy, scenic backwater. Sounded like a fit.

At my first directors' meeting, the senior curator turned to me and asked, "So, what is your maritime background?" I replied, "Well, my grandparents came by boat to Ellis Island and I had a canoe one summer on Lake Waramaug."

Turns out, working in Mystic was not only about sailing and shipbuilding, but about community, and joining with leaders across a broader region committed to envisioning and creating a truly world-class destination.

Mohegan Sun opened, and the two casinos changed everything. People started thinking about branding, competition for tourism dollars, economic impact, customer service and sustainability. How could we possibly reconcile giant gaming and entertainment complexes with the quaint historic, authenticity of Mystic and its rural surroundings? All that anxiety seems so long ago.

Mystic today is a destination poised to recapture its destiny. It is time to think differently and, yes, bigger.

First, we have to connect the dots between the I-95 interchange, Mystic Seaport and downtown, enabling Mystic to become a unified, intelligible, walk-able, bike-able destination. That is, if Mystic is to attract the next generation of active, savvy explorers of cool places, while retaining its current base. This is not about trolleys as repeated studies have finally proven. It is about vision, imagination, will, survival and having a plan. A great plan attracts resources.

An appeal to day visitors

The majority of visitors to Mystic come in the summer for the day. But if the attractions, downtown Mystic, Stonington Borough, Westerly and the Rhode Island beaches - and beyond - were depicted as a seamless, multi-season experience, a different population of visitors might be tapped to explore, linger and discover.

If the Mystic region were presented to national and international tour operators and other influencers as part of an even larger experience, including Newport, Cape Cod, the amazing "borderlands" of South County, R.I. and the historic and natural wonders of the Blackstone River Valley, the entire perception would shift.

Think of regional destinations such as Sonoma, Tuscany, the Maritimes. Each encompasses many towns, districts and topographies. Each is a broad, branded regional destination, and each is marketed nationally and internationally as such.

Fall is the best time to visit, but where are the leaf peepers, the affluent domestic and international travelers, the empty-nesters who can go anywhere, anytime? Most of them are in New England - the other New England. To most Americans and international travelers, New England means Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, principally anything north of Boston.

Southern New England, a region understood primarily by those who live there, can become the next new discovery destination. For Mystic to be a vibrant hub in that larger regional geography - large enough to fulfill passionate interests in lighthouses, whales and whaling, hiking, hauntings, kayaking, freedom trails, ad infinitum - the barriers of towns, rivers, state lines and tunnel vision must give way to regional destination development initiatives that are truly revolutionary.

Peter Glankoff retired on Sept. 30 after seven years as chief marketing officer at Sea Research Foundation. He was previously CMO at Mystic Seaport for 10 years, the only senior manager to have served both institutions.

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