Rolling Out The Welcome Mat: North Central Massachusetts Shines as a Visitor Destination
With 130 plus restaurants, 1,420 rooms to stay, 27 communities to visit and more than a million visitors annually, North Central Massachusetts is on the map as a growing drive destination for family fun, outdoor activities, and sporting events for those throughout New England and beyond.
Want to take a walk? Hop on a bike? Or even a scooter? There’s a trail waiting for you. State and community parks, conservation areas, even former railroad routes make North Central a haven for those who like to move their bodies. Want to check out a soccer game or enjoy a night on the town with friends? We’ve got dozens of fields home to sporting events, and restaurants and breweries abound!
“We are confident in North Central Massachusetts’ ability to entice individuals and families to rethink their vacation plans. Easily drivable amenities, food and farm attractions, and arts and culture venues present an appealing and affordable alternative to hectic air travel to far-flung destinations in the U.S. and around the world,” said Henry Tessman, General Manager of Great Wolf Lodge, a family destination located in Fitchburg that attracts more than half a million people annually and employs more than 700 staff, known as Pack Members.
In 2020, a group of local business and community leaders, dignitaries and other key regional stakeholders got together to really understand what makes our region tick. The result is One North Central, a regional economic development plan to set a path forward for growth and opportunities. The group analyzed dozens of quantitative and qualitative data and factors to identify target industries as viable targets to invest in the region and grow their businesses.
One of the top industries identified was the tourism sector.
Prior to the pandemic, the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism identified tourism as the third-largest industry in Massachusetts, providing more than 155,000 jobs and a payroll of $5.9 billion state-wide, with North Central Massachusetts offering the potential of more than 16,000 jobs in the industry and more than $185 million in direct visitor spending. Post-pandemic, tourism in in North Central Massachusetts is slowly rebounding, proving the region’s potential in the industry.
Rick Walton, President of Moon Hill Brewing Co., and the Gardner Ale House, knows a thing or two about hospitality. His businesses serve more than 150,000 customers annually, with approximately 50 full- and part-time jobs filled. “Right now, many businesses are experiencing crickets when it comes to hiring workers, but we are doing more to retain our current workers, including offering higher wages and providing opportunities for growth in the business,” said Walton. “Rather than having a revolving door of workers, we want to cultivate an evolving family of employees.”
Tessman echoed Walton’s thoughts as Great Wolf Lodge grapples with finding and retaining qualified workers. “While local companies must spend more money on training and developing employees to run their business, I’m fortunate to have strong corporate training programs to train someone on a skill if they have the drive to work at a family resort,” said Tessman. “We are also working with our local trade schools, high schools and colleges to seek employment, but it would be great if our educators would look to providing areas of hospitality for study so we can more clearly identify our future workers.”
For Dean Hirtle, Senior Vice President, Game On Sports and Performance Center in Fitchburg, running a tourism business is fairly new, as the facility formally opened in late 2021. “Businesses have a major opportunity to invest in North Central Massachusetts,” said Hirtle. “There is a lot of growth here and when people visit, they are surprised by what this region has to offer.”
Game On is situated in West Fitchburg on more than 100 acres of land, with only 40 acres currently developed—the additional 60 acres will be transformed into additional turf fields, parking areas, and there are plans to build a hotel to accommodate the more than 5,000 to 10,000 visitors at Game On during any given weekend. “Fitchburg is getting on the map, but we need to utilize marketing opportunities to make people aware of what is happening here. We live and work in a competitive youth sports market so the opportunity here to increase visitor spending will positively impact the economy for the region.”
In addition to hosting sporting events, such as soccer, lacrosse, and basketball for teams from across New England and up and down the East Coast, Game On also serves as the home field for Monty Tech and Fitchburg High School sports. “We take great pride in supporting local athletic departments to use our facilities.”
While Game On is fast becoming a sports destination for athletes, the region is also home to large athletic field complexes in Lancaster and Devens, which host a variety of soccer and lacrosse games, to name a few.
Tessman said the sporting complexes provide additional tourism dollars for all the local businesses in the region, including Great Wolf Lodge, which is located just minutes west on Route 2A from Game On. “With the current and future growth this region is experiencing, we will see more businesses expand or create additional opportunities to cater to these travelers,” he said.
Walton also believes the region has a lot to offer, where one can hike, ski, paddle, sit and relax all within the same day. “We are quintessential New England,” he said. “Every region in the world has its benefits, so it is necessary to compete with other areas to obtain the tourism dollars. We have a solid Chamber of Commerce and a solid regional tourism council, but we just need the funding to promote ourselves and get the word out about what we have to offer.”
Tessman agrees that state funding is critical to ensure success of the industry. “We have proven that tourism dollars stimulate all other business sectors, but we have to fight every year to expand or maintain marketing dollars,” he said. “Other states in New England spend more dollars on tourism and those states experience the benefits of it. While it’s unfortunate that most of the funding the state does spend on tourism marketing ends up in the Boston area, we need to start screaming a little louder here in North Central to prove our value.” Make no mistake, Tessman added, that Great Wolf Lodge has experienced eight years of success in North Central Massachusetts, with plans to invest upward of $40 million in upcoming renovations for the future. “We look forward to many, many more years of presence here in Fitchburg.”
Local business owners can help the tourism industry capitalize on the region’s assets to promote good health, happiness, and well-being. In addition to good jobs and a lower cost of living, the proximity to tourist amenities makes our region a beautiful place to live and work, which helps in the recruitment of hiring talent who do not call North Central home.
Rachel Lopez, Division President of Resource Management located in Fitchburg, was born and raised in North Central. As a local employer in the region who hosts colleagues and potential employees residing out of the area, Lopez utilizes the region’s amenities and assets to attract talent. “To attract and retain a talented workforce, you have to offer an appealing place for someone to call home,” she said. “While I am biased because I grew up here, I’m always thinking about ways to show my out-of-town colleagues and guests the best of what this region as to offer. I’d love to have someone visit the area and consider entertaining a job opportunity here because of the experience they had when they visited us.”
Lopez added she encourages out-of-town colleagues to make a family trip out of their visit by staying at Great Wolf or skiing at Wachusett Mountain, and looks to local museums, restaurants and farms when planning employee events. “While we have been on a hiatus for hosting large group functions due to the pandemic, I am really looking forward to bringing back employee outings and annual celebrations to share the local area with my colleagues in Florida.”
“I encourage our local business owners to take their employees out to local establishments,” said Walton. “Instead of going into Boston, do a brewery tour, take a dive at Great Wolf, go skiing, and frequent our many restaurants. Also, think about buying gift cards to support our businesses, too.”
The Chamber’s tourism arm, Visit North Central Massachusetts manages a robust collaborative regional marketing program to support the visitor and hospitality industry which includes paid digital marketing, social media campaigns, public relations, and participation in trade shows. Printed twice per year, The Guide to North Central Massachusetts promotes tourism and travel in the region with stories and a calendar of events that encompass some of the great events happening here. The Chamber also operates the Johnny Appleseed Visitor Center that welcomes 165,000 visitors each year.
Roy Nascimento, President and CEO of the Chamber, believes the region is well positioned to continue to benefit from tourism and placemaking efforts. “North Central Massachusetts is a very special place located right in the heart of New England,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to share the many opportunities and experiences our region offers with our friends, family and colleagues from outside the area to not only help our tourism industry succeed but to make our region shine.”
By the Numbers
Tourism in North Central Massachusetts
U.S. Adult Trips Annually
Jobs Benefiting from Tourism
Direct Visitor Spending
State Taxes Generated
Local Taxes Generated
Top Five Origin Markets
Boston, Providence/New Bedford Area, Connecticut, New York and Maine
*Data represents pre-pandemic numbers from CY2019 and is sourced from Arrivalist Travel Data, the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and the RKG Study conducted by the Chamber.