Troy Chapman on How Tourism Has Changed in Boothbay Harbor
Troy Chapman, who operates Boothbay Harbor's Harborage Inn with his wife Emery, spoke with Betsy Spekke, a Historic New England guide, about the evolution of the tourism industry in the community.
BETSY SPEKKE: Troy, if you could tell me, first, how long you’ve been in the area, and a little bit about your grandparents, in terms of acquiring this building that we’re in today?
TROY CHAPMAN: Well, I’ve been in the area my whole life, but year-round I’ve been here now about fourteen years. My grandparents, my grandfather, Robert Wallace, who owned the inn before me, was born and raised here, 1928 to current. And he bought the inn in 1971. He was a carpenter that worked on the building, and because of that, he knew the condition of the building and looked at it as a good investment to purchase for hospitality industry.
BS: And did he talk about his life prior to running the inn here?
TC: Well, he grew up here. He would walk to school, and he knew the building since he was born, because the building had been here; built in 1869. And it was a bed and breakfast, or a guest house, actually. It was a guest house since he was born. He figures it was the early 1920s, and he actually remembers the fellow who owned it at the time. I think it was Mr. Williams. He actually named it the Harborage back then, and it’s been a guest house now, and a bed and breakfast, every year since then. But he remembers the building, and the gentleman. And his mother, actually, worked here, or helped people that would stay here. Of course, back then it wasn’t as much a nightly residence for people to spend the night, and stay. They would stay longer periods: monthly or weekly. And that was what people did, up until probably the—well, it became nightly probably in the sixties, in the summer.
BS: Was she a cook?
TC: I don’t know about that, but I know that she would just come, and probably help with the rooms—maybe a little bit of everything. But she was here enough to befriend some of the elderly people. The specific story I was told was there was a lady that was fairly affluent whose son had gone through their savings. And she had to live here, when she was elderly. And she didn’t have as much family, so my grandfather’s mother befriended her. And it was the holiday. The story I’ve heard consistently is that my grandfather’s mother brought the woman to their house for the holidays. And my grandfather still remembers having to sing Christmas carols, and he couldn’t hold the note. But that was probably another reason why he liked this building, is his memory of his mother coming here.
BS: And do you know how many rooms they may have had in those early days?
TC: I think there were six total rooms total. And of those, two—well, one is exactly the way it was; well now, it’s an office.
BS: And you said your grandfather first started out doing carpentry work here?
TC: That’s when he did some changes in the 1960s, he got to know [previous owner] Mr. Shockey, and then he heard Mr. Shockey was selling. So that’s when he thought it was a good investment. And I guess financially, at the time, it was feasible for them. So it was a timing issue, I’m sure.
BS: So, are you able to speak to some of the changes that your grandfather did to the structure?
TC: Well, the first thing they did is they tried to maximize occupancy, because at the time, the season was short that it only made sense to try to have as many number of rooms, because the season was really mid-June to Labor Day.
BS: And this was about what time period?
TC: Early seventies, when they came. And the books we have reflect, even into the sixties and late fifties, that during June, July, August, that’s when the people come, and that’s why you’re able to get three years in one book. Because from November until April, people would come, not very often, though. But they didn’t need as much, the massive space for the owner. So they took the owners’ living quarters, and made two rooms there on the first floor. And then they added on three units for year-round uses that were apartments/rentals in the summer, but then weekly in the winter. And that was to maximize just the amount of people they could have. Plus, they added bathrooms, which was a big deal in the seventies. For a small place to have private bathrooms was advertised. Their sign said: kitchenettes and private baths, which was rare. A lot of places just had to share a bath. When they took the old bathtub out, my grandfather gave it to someone, and it’s probably worth a lot of money, because it had brass things that were very ornate. And they just, they did a lot of changes, he did, in the 1970s, to make it—
BS: Once he took it over?
TC: Once he bought it. Well, they owned it for about five, six years, saw how the industry was working, and then tried to maximize the amount of occupancy in the summer months. That was about ’77, when they did the changes.
BS: Okay, and before the tape started rolling, we talked a little bit about how originally there weren’t many bed and breakfasts in the area.
TC: No. Well, the term bed and breakfast means you get breakfast. And in our town, just me being here twelve years, I’ve noticed, when I first came that was just starting, that there was maybe one or two. And that was a new, novel concept in our area, specifically. They’re everywhere around the world, but for Boothbay Harbor, you didn’t have that bed and breakfast; you had maybe a couple places. You had hotels, and you had little places like ours. And then since then, of course, everyone—the industry has changed dramatically for luxury--gourmet breakfast, and you have to really provide for the guests now, as opposed to just having a little place to spend the night, which was adequate.
BS: Can you speak a little more about how there were kitchens in the rooms on the upper floors, and how those have been changed?
TC: Well, that was a big concept for my grandparents to have rooms with kitchenettes, which no one had, I don’t think. And that was big in 1977. And hence, we’ve had to now renovate those, because the bathroom—there was a big kitchen and a very small bathroom. And now people don’t really need—and for fire code, a stove is not the best. Plus, everything was avocado green.
BS: So, do you have any sense of why kitchens in the rooms were popular? Is it because people were staying longer?
TC: People could definitely stay longer. The season [had] only been about what, three months, two and a half, three months. And people in the summer, even now, tend to stay, if they’re going to come up this way. They do, now, all come by car. I’ve heard the stories how, back then, my grandfather’s wives are both from Boston, their family. And I’ve heard all the stories about they would come up by train, and they would come by boat. And car wasn’t as much of a big deal, because they had tolls on every bridge, or something. And they’d get off and walk across; they wouldn’t pay the toll per person. But the kitchen idea was because people stay longer, and it was a real attraction. You could have someone want to stay four or five nights, six nights, because look what you had—you could cook in the room. Plus they would stay open. They were open year-round, but the rooms weren’t rented as much. But people could stay in those for a weekly rental.
BS: Okay, so then it as around what time period that you started hearing that it was more profitable, perhaps, to have a big bathroom?
TC: Well, in the industry, you listen to your guests. And I came here twelve years ago, ’97, and when people comment consistently, after you get eight to ten comments, you think—you know, one or two people can be quirky. Eight to ten per year, you start thinking, well, I guess we do need air conditioning, things like that.
BS: So there wasn’t, when you took over?
TC: No, there was no brochures, no website. The internet was new then. Advertising was minimal. Boothbay Harbor has always been an attraction and a destination, that I think that people are always going to come to, and they always have for the last hundred years. But, I don’t know. When I came, it had been about twenty years since the renovations in the ‘70s. So probably four or five years, people started mentioning things. First it was air conditioning. Well, first it was breakfast, because then everyone started doing breakfast.
BS: So, your grandparents didn’t start the breakfast part?
TC: No, no. And if I remember, actually, just going back to my grandmother coming here, I believe I remember hearing my grandfather and mother saying this was sort of a communal kitchen area. So maybe if you stayed here, you could share the kitchen, you could come down. I don’t know. I’m just saying, I think that’s what I remember. I remember my grandfather saying his mother was basically an overall housekeeper. She would come and clean the whole house. Because you would have to not just clean the rooms, but the hall, and everything needed to be dusted and cleaned. And probably the kitchen, the same thing.
But for the changes, to go back to that, yeah, there were no breakfasts; we had to implement that, around 2001. Air conditioning, because it’s hot, and Maine in the summer’s always been hot, but when everyone else starts getting air conditioning, that’s the next step. And then, the bathrooms, you know, avocado green, by about the mid-2000’s, were starting to look both dated and old.
You know, our being on the main street in downtown, we’ve always had a lot of repeat customers, and we’ve always had a lot of people make reservations, but we also have a lot of people walk in. And if people are walking in, they’re obviously going to go with what looks the best. And when they go in, and you hear, “Oh, we don’t need a stove,” or, “Oh, we don’t need this, and oh, the bathroom is small,” you think, well, look what people would like: a much larger bathroom, and not the kitchen. So we renovated those a couple years ago. We went in and took those back to the studs. And it’s fun, getting into an old building, because you see the way the building used to look. Everything here was mint green.
BS: Have you witnessed any changes in where your guests are coming from?
TC: Well, I mean, there’s obviously a lot more international, just because of people flying. You do get people from all over the world now. But I wouldn’t say that between now and [when Emery and I took over], there’s been a dramatic increase in international. I mean, it’s all economic. When the dollar is strong, they don’t come from Canada. You know, the Euro has been strong, so they come then. But there’s so many people from metro Philly, D.C. up—that’s the general demographic who’s coming. But you know, like yesterday, I took two reservations: one from New Mexico, one from Austin, Texas.
So I think the ability, with Manchester Airport now, Portland Airport getting bigger—Logan’s always there, but it’s annoying. With Manchester and Portland—I mean, Portland’s expensive, but Manchester has really helped because it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s an inexpensive flight. You can get in and out of that airport, and it’s the same distance as Logan.
BS: How about length of stay for guests, from your early days ‘til now?
TC: In the middle of the summer, July and August, we have minimums of two nights the whole period, just because it blocks off other people that do call for three to five nights. July and August, you know, a lot of people will stay three to seven nights, three to six nights, because it’s that time of the year. But yeah, people do come a lot more. Like, we were talking earlier about the season, you know. It used to be really, when school got out, mid-June to Labor Day, with a little bit of a shoulder season. I remember in the 1980s, my mother always helped my grandmother run the inn, and she would stay, my mother, here until the season ended, which was around Halloween. And then would come back to live with me and my folks, which were in England, on an Air Force Base. My Dad was a DODDs [Department of Defense Dependents Schools] teacher.
Anyways, I went to school here twice, to go to school locally where I’m from, and to see my friends. And I remember specifically getting off the school bus here, because I would sometimes take the bus here just to see my grandparents. And it was the day after Labor Day, and it was a ghost town, mid-week. Weekend, there’d be some people piling in, but not as much mid-week at all. I remember specifically thinking, because I’d never known this town beyond the summer, when it’s hustling and booming, and I just noticed: this is very different. This is not the way it was two weeks ago. And not just being different, but like, no one around. And now, it’s no real drop-off until probably Columbus Day, the week after Columbus Day. The high season now for people does go Memorial Day—and that’s for rates, and that dictates occupancy—Memorial Day, really, to Columbus Day, is really when people tend to come the most. But people come now in September, and say, “I want to stay ten days, because I know it’s a little bit less money.” It’s becoming more of a destination for couples, not as much for families. We definitely have activities for children, but we don’t get the demand as much.
BS: Are there any comments that you have in terms of changes in shops, or restaurants, or entertainment, from when you folks first took over here, to sort of more recently?
TC: Well, it seems like Boothbay Harbor was always, you know, when people call on the phone and they talk to me, they don’t know anything about Maine. They just want to come; they’ve seen a movie, or they’ve read a Stephen King book. Or it looks pretty, and they don’t have a clue about it. And then when I talk to them, and ask what their life interests are, to see if it’s going to be applicable to coming here, because we don’t have a beach. We have a lot of natural activities, like the botanical gardens, the hiking trails, go to Monhegan Island, go on a boat trip. If you like those things, it’s great. If you’re not entertained that way, then it’s not going to be too much fun. There are no movie theaters, and things like that. But the thing that I’ve noticed the most in our town is Boothbay Harbor used to be a real working town. It had a blue collar feel; it had a real, you know, not glossed-over look. And I would explain Camden as being like a Disney World town. It’s perfect! It’s mansions, and everything is color perfect. They must have ordinances for what you can paint your homes.
Here, where we actually have a lot of fishermen, we’ve done some renovations; our neighbors have done renovations. The people up the road, used to be the Lion d’Or, the Bayberry. A lot of inns now, people have come in—and maybe that’s just the change that people demand—but they’ve taken something a little older, and they’ve made it a new type of building, or business. They’ve changed it to the way that people want it now, by making it—and part of that is, like I said, we renovated those rooms that were kind of the avocado green kitchenettes, to brand new, but with a big bathroom. We also added a whole floor, which we went into two of the three small rooms on the top floor, and made just one big room with a bathroom, plus added a whole floor, for the view, for the large room—brand new, different colors. And we’ve noticed—you know, that was a few years ago, and since then there’s been two or three other people come in, and do the same thing. So the overall look of the town has just been beautified, I guess. It’s become a lot more refined, and it still holds the nice attraction of a working town, I think. So we’re not just a tourist town; it’s a little bit of, people can work in the town, but yet it’s very pretty to come to.
Our longest recurring guest has been coming since ’61. Massachusetts, I’m pretty sure. I know who they are exactly, but she came with her mother, and then she’s brought her father, and now she brings her grandchildren. And they go to the Railway Village. And we’ve gotten very friendly. But I’ve talked to them extensively, and you know, just asking her, her opinions on things. What’s interesting in our downtown, I think, is—have you seen the movie Carousel?
TC: Okay. Well, the overall look of the town has not dramatically changed. It’s changed, but like, there’s not taller buildings. I mean, and that’s interesting, I think, for our town, is there’s been some changes, but not so much that you can’t recognize it. It still does hold the same look, I think.
BS: From what you recall when you were younger, of sort of shops, and being around the downtown, did there used to be more Mom and Pop grocery stores, and all of that, and now it’s all T shirt shops? Or was it always T shirts and souvenirs?
TC: You definitely see places—yeah, those places have always been there. I mean, McSeagull’s, that was a little bar, and now it’s a double—they took it down to the pilings, and rebuilt that. Grave’s, next door to that, was a little lobster—Grave’s Wharf was you’d come in for a lobster bake, and then they’ve sold it to these folks who have redone the inside. It’s not open year-round, but it’s nicer. I think that’s just what people have done. I think, in some older people’s impression of the Maine Coast, any change is a shock to the system. And I think the impression on the older generation, when they think of coming to Maine, is—how do I use the right adjective? Cabin-y?
BS: Okay, yeah.
TC: Just, like I said, a place to stay. That’s why when my grandparents added the new rooms with the kitchenettes, people were tickled. My grandmother said people couldn’t believe it, that this was existing.
BS: Right, that was high living, back then.
TC: You just were happy to have a room, and if you had to walk down the hall to the bathroom—great, I have a room! My grandmother, back then, would tell me she would do—the rooms would get changed over, and she would be done around, say, ten-thirty or eleven. And she would go out for the day, and she would leave a note up: “Back at two, two-thirty.” And she would come back, and there’d be people lining the deck to wait for a room.
You know, people, they didn’t have as many options, and this place looked really nice. So they would just wait, and she would take them to their room, and see which one they would like. Reservations, when I first came, weren’t as prevalent. It wasn’t a system through the computer, obviously. The internet was really becoming a force in ’97, for the tourist industry. Having a brochure was a big deal. If you could make the brochure into a website, that was state of the art. And now, as we speak, we’ve redone our website. We’re probably on version 5.0, that’s the fifth new website. And as we speak, Monday we’re going live with online reservations, so you don’t even have to talk to us anymore! Which unfortunately changes the whole dynamic of a small inn, but people are demanding that.
Anyways, so in the seventies, people would mainly just show up. Or they would call and say I’m coming, and she would just hold a room. So there were no credit cards back then. Well, there were, but they didn’t use them. My grandmother didn’t take credit cards ‘til the mid-late nineties. The basic story is, when I came and started doing the reservations, it was a whole new system that was never done here. You would just call and say, “I’ll take a room,” and you didn’t even have to send payment. It would just, the people would come, or they wouldn’t, and if they didn’t come, it’s okay, because somebody else had to take a room. And that was probably due to the fact that there weren’t as many places, and they weren’t all new.
But the online reservation thing, we’ve not wanted to do it. But you have to think. Like you’re asking where do people come from? We’re on the Eastern Time zone. We’re only open until nine at night. People aren’t going to leave a credit card on an answering machine, and they don’t want to do it in an e-mail. So, a lot of times you’ll find when you call them back, in California, in Europe, or e-mail them, they’ve moved on. They need it done now!
And with online booking, you’ll see all the rooms, a lot of photos, and there’s your secure form. It’s like a store, I guess. You go in, you pay, and hopefully when they come, they know where they’re going. Because our concern is, on the phone, we go over things with them.“Do you want this room? Are you sure you want that room? Because you want to stay five nights—why don’t you take the bigger room? It’s double the size; it’s a brand new room.”
We still have two rooms we rent that are the exact same size since they were first rented. They’ve been renovated; they were renovated in the nineties, just wallpaper and new molding. Well, some of the molding was matched to the existing, existing molding. They still have the old hallway door, which is fired-coded blocked. But they’re the existing size of the rooms that people have rented. And actually, someone said one of them, they think, is haunted. There was a lady that heard her jewelry moving at night. And she didn’t understand that! And we didn’t have an answer.
BS: Do you feel any sense of competition from larger hotels, or is it the smaller?
TC: No, it’s very—not at all. You know, we only rent ten of the twelve, because we live here. I mean, obviously we keep up to standards, what people want. And we represent on our website pretty well, I think. And I look at it, you know, people come in and out of, they buy an inn, and some of them have sold three or four times in ten years. It’s a nice—people look at it always, and they say, “It looks fun. It looks like it would just be a delight to visit.” Well, the visiting can be nice. But guess what you’re doing from seven a.m. until nine at night? You’re working, whether you’re on your feet, talking, or you’re doing your gardening. I mean, with a small inn, you can’t have a large staff. So you’re giving a lot of customer service. You know, the breakfast my wife does every morning for the guests, and she grew up catering, so it has to be her way. To get to the competition, I look at it, and I’ve used the analogy like, you know, we’re not McDonald’s and Burger King, or Coke and Pepsi. It’s a small season. We only have a small amount of rooms, and pretty much we’re full all the time. If we weren’t full, and it was more cutthroat, I’d think so. But you know, I explain to people, in July and August, if you have the shack across the water, you’d rent it in the summer. People are going to come.
BS: Well, I’m glad to hear that it’s still in the family, and that business is still doing well.
TC: It’s nice to keep the tradition, I think. Part of the reason we enjoy doing it is, you know, it’s rare to have—our emblem is, our eighty-fifth anniversary year. But to keep it in a family, it’s our thirty-ninth year in one family—in today’s economy, that doesn’t happen. Things get sold. They just change it overnight, and it’s not the same. And then, it’s lost any sort of, I don’t know, authenticity, or feel.
BS: Exactly. And you’re able to sort of hold onto that, and it sounds like with your improvements you’ve made to it, you haven’t totally changed the character. And that’s part of the reason why some of those guests are still happy to come.
TC: I was telling my grandparents just the other day—they were asking about certain old guests. And one of them had always stayed in a corner room on the second floor, because we only had two floors. And of course, we made that one the corner, two-person—the honeymoon suite. So we added a two-person Jacuzzi where the kitchen is. They don’t need a two-person Jacuzzi, so we moved them to the room next door, number ten, thinking that’s a big change, to go from a huge view to a lesser view, but the same size room. And their comment was, “You’ve made a lot of changes, but they’re really good changes. We don’t really miss the kitchen. We love the bathroom. And the room is really nice now. It looks different, but it’s a very nice room.” So I guess that says we’re doing okay.
All images courtesy The Harborage Inn, Boothbay Harbor, Maine.