Leaf Peepers: The business of foliage
By LEON THOMPSON | September 24,2013
VBT Bicycling & Walking Tours, of Bristol, conducts 80 percent of its in-state business during the fall foliage season.
The idea struck Natala Ferens-Hommel in 2010.
After she moved from Connecticut to Stockbridge two years earlier, Vermont’s scenery soon reminded her of her native Poland, with “many hidden gems to be found, if you know where to look.”
When friends visited from Connecticut and New York City, she would introduce them to her favorite new Vermont spots.
“Travel is one of my biggest passions,” she said this past July, “and because of that, guiding visitors around the state just seemed like the ideal business for me to be in.”
So she opened Vermontology, a tour company that focuses on small groups of no more than six people. Vermontology offers guided tour packages during all four seasons, from five-day excursions, with bed-and-breakfast lodging, to custom day trips.
“Fall is our busiest time of year,” Ferens-Hommel said. “Vermont is a popular destination for fall foliage, and our tours appeal to those who don’t want to ride on a large bus with dozens of other people. I was on the road for five straight weeks last fall, serving customers from: Oregon, Florida, California, Connecticut, New York, Montana, Canada, New England, and Australia.”
For decades, tourists from all over the world have flocked to Vermont during a seven-to-eight-week-window in autumn, for a shot at watching the state’s foliage die in all its colorful, economy-bolstering glory. Leaf-peepers use Google to find Web sites dedicated to foliage (such as www.foliage-vermont.com) and then plan trips around fixed or mixed modes of travel, whether biking, driving or walking. They use guides, and they go it alone.
Over the summer, air travel entered the fall foliage picture when Jay Peak owners Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros, as part of their efforts to revitalize the Northeast Kingdom, announced the “aviation vacation” as part of a new initiative at the Newport State Airport.
“In the fall, millions of acres of deciduous trees turn brilliant shades of red, gold, and orange for a foliage show unrivaled anywhere,” writer William Scheller said in a 2011 Yankee magazine article he penned about a two-day fall foliage tour he took in the Champlain Valley, where he covered such areas as Morrisville, Montgomery and Swanton.
“Remember, though, that autumn is a mighty popular time to visit,” Scheller wrote, “so be sure to have your lodging reservations in hand before setting out, especially if you are traveling on the weekend.
Of Vermont’s four seasons, fall comes in third in visitor spending ($460 million), after winter ($577 million) and summer ($490 million).
However, the average money spent per person in fall ($128) is second highest, under ski-busy winter ($149), according to the most recent data from the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing (VDTM).
Jen Butson, VDTM communications director, noted that the “true window of fall foliage travel is much narrower than the summer or winter multi-month seasons.”
VBT Bicycling & Walking Vacations, of Bristol, conducts 80 percent of its in-state business during that small fall window, and the other 20 percent of its in-state business in the spring, said Paul Williams, VBT marketing director.
“People want to come here in the fall, from all over the country,” Williams said. “They hear about it. They want to experience it. It’s a big boost for all of us.”
Former Middlebury College professor John Freidin started VBT in 1971; back then, it only offered weekend biking tours. VBT added walking tours in 2010, because many longtime clients had switched from bikes, Williams said.
VBT branched outside Vermont in 1972 and overseas in 1994. Today, the company — which employs 40 people, some outside the U.S. — arranges about 700 four-season tours a year, worldwide, and plays host to more than 10,000 tourists.
VBT added a cross-country ski trip to its Vermont offerings last winter and is planning fall tours in southern Vermont for 2014.
“People from outside our state see our foliage as magical, even legendary,” Williams said.
It even looks that way on the Web. Ferens-Hommel said she never has to “sell the idea” that Vermont’s reputation for fall foliage is spectacular. Still, she has packed the Vermontology Web site with short, effective video blogs, accompanied by brief text, that show scenes from all over the state.
“Video blogging” takes little time and makes her Web site easier to find on search engines, she said.
“Fall foliage is good for business in Vermont, because it gets people to come here on vacation,” Ferens-Hommel said. “They buy our food, stay in our hotels, and shop in our villages, all of which is good for our local economy. But Vermont is a great place to visit any time of year. … Our goal is to create enough interesting packages to attract tourists in any season.”