Keynote address: Tourism begins with community

February 4, 2020

The following address was given at the Southern Delaware Tourism Awards Luncheon, Dec. 11, 2019.

Tourism is about more than a destination or an event, or even a coastline. Tourism starts with community.

When visitors leave Southern Delaware and they remember the people they met here - when they remember our community - we win. There are lots of potential drivers for a visit to Southern Delaware: an event, a beach, a museum, or maybe just proximity.

But we all know it’s the experiences visitors enjoy here that will bring them back. Those experiences are what they will remember, and what they will tell their friends about. It’s the people and the community that elevate a trip to a fantastic experience.

That connection goes beyond our co-workers on the front lines of tourism. We know that our servers, our front desk teams, our guides, our cashiers, our housekeeping staff are all critical players in our visitors’ experience. But what about the rest of our community?

Whether we like it or not, all of the people who live in a tourist destination are in the customer service business. Our communities, our friends, our neighbors - everyone needs to know, understand and appreciate the value of tourism.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yup, we’ve all known the guy or gal who has railed against tourists, traffic, and overcrowding. We’ve read the letters in the paper, seen the bumper stickers.

But one of our important jobs as leaders in the tourism industry is to remind people why a vibrant tourism economy benefits us all - and, guess what - it’s not just about bringing dollars into the local economy!

I remember what Route 1 looked like in the ‘70s. I remember the businesses that lined the streets of our beach communities in the ‘80s. I had summer jobs in a handful of restaurants. I worked at Kupchick’s on the beach in Lewes, the Holiday House in Bethany, Sydney’s Side Street and The Camel’s Hump in Rehoboth. I also remember that many of those restaurants where I worked closed in the winter. In fact, many of our local businesses closed in the fall and reopened in the spring back then.

Now, our year-round Culinary Coast has a well-earned reputation for having a wealth of excellent dining options from perfect-for the-occasion boardwalk eats to fine dining and farm-to-table. In the past few years, we’ve even had more and more great ethnic options open. Even so, I can tell you that Dogfish Head would be hard-pressed to operate our two restaurants year-round with only our local guests.

While we truly love our regulars and appreciate the slow, but steady months of January and February as much as we appreciate the crazy hustle and bustle of summer, employing more than 100 hospitality co-workers with benefits like health insurance and 401K just wouldn’t work without our visitors. 

Without the support of our visitors, our Culinary Coast wouldn’t be as rich. I checked Yelp for Sussex County food establishments/restaurants. It shows more than 800 options; 50 in Bethany out toward Ocean View, 30 from downtown Lewes out to Five Points, and more than 100 eating establishments in downtown Rehoboth. How lucky are we?

In 1995, after college when my boyfriend and I opened a restaurant four blocks from the beach, people told us we were too far from the action. They smiled politely when we said that it was our hope to stay open through the fall, winter and spring.

One of those fall nights in 1997, a small group of folks got together at Dogfish to chat about the possibility of showing independent films in local restaurants. They decided to advertise a meeting for film buffs to see if others in the community were interested in something like that happening here. 

I wasn’t a huge film buff, but I remembered that when I was a kid, my mom would get a babysitter from time to time, so she could drive over to D.C. for the day, watch two back-to-back movies that she couldn’t see locally, and then drive home. That stuck with me. Anyway, more than 30 local film buffs showed up to Dogfish and watched a film about small-town residents with a big dream. The idea of creating the Rehoboth Beach Film Society was conceived that night by local community members.

More than 20 years later, the society has a full-time, year-round theater screening independent films for all of us, and the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival is a great tourism draw, bringing film buffs from around the mid-Atlantic region and beyond to the beach every November.

Tourism begins with community

In 2007, through an effort to honor the loss of a local community leader, the Freeman Foundation launched with the goal of presenting memorable performances and providing inspired arts education for all. A year later, the team opened a stage, and now, thanks to more than 250 volunteer community members, they host more than 60,000 people a season at live concerts and performances. I’ve been to a number of great shows there and I’m guessing a bunch of you have too - as have many of our out-of-town visitors.

Tourism begins with community

In early 2012, a group of energetic, garden-loving community members wanted to fill an unmet need for horticulture education and gardening resources. This year, Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek on the Inland Bays near Dagsboro opened to the public. It’s still early in the life of our community’s garden, but let me tell you about the Botanic Gardens where I often vacation. It might sound familiar.

In 1991, a small group of MidCoast Maine residents dreamed of building a public garden on 148 acres of rocky coastal forest. After hundreds, probably thousands, of community volunteer hours and fundraising, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens opened 16 years later. Today the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is one of Maine’s top attractions, and over 200,000 guests from throughout the United States and 63 foreign countries visited the gardens last year.

Tourism begins with community

We are so lucky that community initiatives have brought us the film society, the Freeman Stage and botanic gardens, and The Ladybug Music Festival, Fort Miles Museum, the Possum Point Players, the Rehoboth Jazz Festival, the Milton Historical Society Museum, Coastal Concerts, the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, the Nanticoke Indian Powwow, the Lewes Historical Society Museum, Wings and Wheels, the Rehoboth Art League; I could go on…and on.

Most of you probably have a connection to a community initiative. You partner with them, volunteer with them, or attend and enjoy them. If you do, you are also likely aware that many of these community-based organizations benefit from our visitors.
Those same theaters, events, festivals and museums that we get to enjoy as local residents are dependent on the traffic and support of our out-of-town visitors.

As tourism here in Southern Delaware has increased over the years, so have our community offerings. Our communities have a symbiotic relationship with our tourism industry, and it’s a win-win situation.

Years ago, I printed out my ad for our local paper and drove it down from the brewery in Lewes to the newspaper office. I held the door open for another woman and she went right up to the receptionist. They exchanged their friendly greetings, then the woman who walked in before me talked about the traffic coming down from Lewes.

I was somewhat dumbfounded because I had just driven down from Lewes myself and there hadn’t been noticeable traffic. Sure, there were other cars on the road, but nothing I would deem traffic. It was then that I realized that traffic was just another conversation starter kind of like, “How’s the weather out there.” 

We need to change the conversation - flip the story. For every complaint you hear about traffic, counteract with something positive about our community. Remind people that our vibrant, culturally rich community is nurtured by tourism. And we benefit from that. All of us. 

Our friends and family members who don’t work in the tourism industry benefit from tourism even if they don’t dine out or go to great concerts, festivals, or our museums. Our schools are growing and hiring because our area is booming. Our hospitals are growing and hiring because our area is booming.

Let’s flip the script and remind everyone that tourism begins with community - and that we are all better off for it.

Mariah Calagione is cofounder of Dogfish Head Brewery.



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