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Events Equal Big Bucks in NH

Published Monday Jul 9, 2018

Author Judi Currie

New Hampshire’s tourism industry is a major economic engine in the state, fueled in part by huge events that draw thousands of visitors. From  single-day events to those that last a week or more, these annual experiences attract visitors traveling just a few blocks to a few thousand miles to take in everything from NASCAR races to Scottish traditions.

According to NH Travel and Tourism Director Victoria Cimino, while the state hasn’t measured the economic impact from individual events, they do know that these big events draw people from all over the country and the world. Cimino says a primary indicator of visitor activity is rooms and meals tax revenue, which increases 5 to 7 percent each year. The total audited Meals & Rentals Tax for FY2017 was $314,741,000.

Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs, says the state targets visitors from Boston, the New York metro area, Toronto and Montreal. “It is our second largest industry, so we work it pretty hard,” says Caswell.  He says the state uses digital media to put NH on the radar of potential visitors, and the big events are a big draw. “We focus on what New Hampshire is best known for,” Caswell says. “As we like to say—variety within proximity. If you are in central New Hampshire, you are an hour to an hour-and-a-half from anything.”

From races to festivals, events add to the state’s allure and the vibrancy of communities. And large-scale events can infuse communities with thousands or millions of dollars. Without a definitive way to rank the Granite State’s big events, Business NH Magazine took a look at some of the events that draw the biggest crowds to find out what it takes to produce them, why people flock to them and the economic impact they have in host communities and the state.

Go Fast, Turn Left
Caswell says although the state is not keeping track, based on the size of the venue alone, he suspects the single biggest one-day event is the NASCAR race at NH Motor Speedway in Loudon. David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the speedway, agrees. Attendance at a NASCAR race is about 75,000 people, he says, and the two annual NASCAR races hosted at the speedway add about $190 million to $200 million to the state’s economy annually.

Which is why the loss of one of those races this year to Las Vegas made headlines. However, NH Motor Speedway will still host the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on July 22, which is expected to attract tens of thousands of fans. Managing the track for a NASCAR race is akin to running a small city. The speedway has 48 full-time employees and a few part-timers, which McGrath says swells to more than 1,000 on a race weekend, including volunteers.

A NASCAR race at NH Motor Speedway in Loudon. Photo by Harold Hinson.

It also means dealing with the logistics of moving attendees in and out of the speedway. “People worry traffic will be bad, but we’ve been working very closely with New Hampshire Department of Transportation,” McGrath says. “We borrow lanes and flow the traffic and have really honed it over the years to become very efficient.” Plans are in the works to widen Route 106, which McGrath says will benefit not just the track but commuters between Laconia and Concord.

But with the loss of one of the big NASCAR races, the speedway is working to hold a country music festival to draw the crowds. The speedway has approval from Loudon’s land use boards, but it’s caught up in litigation with nearby Canterbury residents over an agreement that states it can only hold concerts in conjunction with races. McGrath says the proposed concert site doesn’t come under the agreement because the land was purchased after the agreement.

“It will bring millions and millions to the state’s economy and benefit area businesses, but not just the hotels in Concord,” McGrath says. “The entire I-93 corridor—from the Lakes Region to Nashua—will benefit.”

Motorcycle Parking Only
Love of motorsports is not just for cars. McGrath says during Laconia Motorcycle Week there will be 40,000 bikes at the speedway over the course of the event, which runs June 9 to 17, for demonstrations, displays and racing. “This year will be the 95th running of Loudon Classic, America’s oldest continuous race,” McGrath says. “There’s also a vintage motorcycle race and other types of races that week. The big three motorcycle events in the year are Daytona, Laconia and Sturgis—three not-to-miss rallies. It’s a cool feather in our cap to have one of the top three.”

Laconia Motorcycle Week at Weirs Beach. Courtesy photo.

Most of the rally activities take place about 25 miles to the north at Weirs Beach in Laconia. Charlie St. Clair, president of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, says that for the past few years attendance has been around 230,000 over the course of the nine days. He says they use aerial footage and other methods to get the count.

Charlie St. Clair, executive director, and Jennifer Anderson, deputy director of Motorcycle Week. Courtesy photo.


“It is the largest event that takes place all year and keeps people in the state that long,” St. Clair says. He adds that a survey conducted several years ago concluded the event pumped well over $100 million into the state’s economy. St. Clair says people must go through neighboring states to get here and are spending along the way on food, gas and hotels.

Although Laconia Motorcycle Week is an iconic event and the longest running of its kind, competition for tourists is fierce. “When I started in ’92 there were 50 motorcycle events, now there are 850,” St. Clair says. “The market only has so many riders.”

He says when he attends tourism trade shows, he sees some states and even countries with huge booths, all trying to attract visitors.

“Motorcycle Week is the catalyst to get them here, and a lot of people will benefit from that,” he says. “Tourism is such an important part of the economy of New Hampshire. People see something they like—boats, vehicles, motorcycles—and come back after the event to buy it.”

A League of Their Own
The League of NH Craftsmen Annual Fair is the oldest continuous-running outdoor fair in the country. Miriam Carter, executive director, says the league is iconic in nature. It was founded in 1932 and has been holding an annual fair since 1934, first in Crawford Notch, then moving around the state until 1948 when it settled in Gilford. The event has been held at its current location, Mount Sunapee State Park, since 1964.

A potter demonstrates her technique at the League of NH Craftsmen Annual Fair. Courtesy photo.


Approximately 25,000 visitors flock to the nine-day fair to peruse and purchase items crafted by the League’s juried members. “We have approximately 750 members, and about 350 take part in the fair,” Carter says. League members can rent booths to display and sell their work for either four days or the full nine days of the fair.

Below: A shopper at the fair checks out the merchandise at fiber artist Carrie Cahil Mulligan’s booth.


Members who can’t commit to stocking and staffing a booth can opt to take part in “the shop at the fair,” a cooperative space to display and sell their crafts.

“We also have two exhibits, living with crafts—a beautiful environment to see crafts in—and then we have craft-wear, which is clothing and jewelry,” she says. As the League no longer includes a fine art category, it partners with the NH Art Association, which has a tent at the fair.

Carter says the League has a base of about 100 volunteers and teams from Eversource and Hypertherm. Mount Sunapee Resort provides ticketing and food services. The League pays for police and an ambulance to be onsite.

Carter says the League has made the fair a destination and also uses it as an opportunity to educate the thousands of attendees about the work of juried craftspeople. “We have lots of opportunities for members to demonstrate; we have people showing how glass is blown, how pottery is made, how fiber is constructed,” Carter says. “We are always adding new things as well. You may see some of the same artists, but you are always seeing a new body of work.”

The League has added original music to the fair, which Carter says reflects the handmade work on display as it too must be original. There is also a craft beer and wine garden.

Taking the High(land) Road
What began as a family picnic has grown to one of the largest cultural events in the country. The NH Highland Games and Festival, which will be held Sept. 21-23, is now in its 43rd year and organized by NH Scot, a nonprofit that promotes and preserves Scottish culture. Terri Wiltse, executive director of NH Scot, says that over the course of three days, the games will draw 35,000 to Loon Mountain Resort in Lincoln.

The Highland Games. Courtesy photo.

What draws a crowd that size? Athletic and dance competitions, as well as music, pageantry, history and seminars. Competitions such the heavy hammer throw and caber toss, attract athletes from across the world and are the biggest draws.

At the clan village, where 60-70 clans are represented, people can learn more about their Scottish heritage and related arts and crafts. Hafthor Björnsson, an Icelandic professional strongman, known for his role in Game of Thrones, was a special celebrity guest at last year’s event. In 2015, he beat a 1,000-year-old record at the World’s Strongest Viking competition in Norway, where he carried a 33-foot-long, 1,430-pound log for five steps. “These are big guys who can carry heavy things—while wearing a kilt,” Wiltse says. “They are best in their field.”

Wiltse says NH Scot doesn’t have current numbers but did commission a report in 1999 from the Plymouth State University graduate program. “At that time, we had fewer than 22,000 attendees and they ranked our economic impact at $10 million. About 65 percent of attendees are from out of state—mostly New England—but in 2017 almost every state bought tickets including Alaska,” she says. By February, many local hotels are already booked for the fall festival, so some attendees make their reservations for next year as they are leaving, Wiltse says. “We are in the shoulder season to leaf peeping, so it is clear our event is bringing them in,” she adds.

Wiltse says food and beer sales go to the resort while ticket sales go to NH Scot. Loon adds some Scottish flair to the menu with Scotch eggs, shepherd’s pie and meat pie. NH Scot has a small staff and uses about 250 volunteers, who perform a variety of tasks from selling tickets to handing out programs and moving equipment for the bands.

Planners of these large scale events are focused on safety protocols. But even before the Las Vegas tragedy, organizers of the NH Highland Games made safety a top priority. The festival pays for police to help with the traffic and security. Officers come from Lincoln and Woodstock and wear their NH Tartan Kilts during festival weekend. “Safety is always an issue,” Wiltse says. “We get together and create an emergency response plan and protocols that we all work on together.”

Head North Young ATVer
If you have a vehicle, NH has a festival for you. While NASCAR has fans flocking to Loudon and motorcyclists roar into the Lakes Region, Berlin has re-imagined itself as a haven for ATV enthusiasts with Jericho Lake State Park offering more than 80 miles of ATV trails and access to Ride the Wilds Trail System, which is more than 1,000 miles of interconnected trails in the North Country.

Jericho ATV Festival mud pit. Courtesy of the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce.

To take advantage of this burgeoning tourism business, the Androscoggin Valley Chamber began the Jericho ATV Festival nine years ago. The festival, which will be held Aug. 3 and 4 this year, attracts thousands of riders to the ATV-friendly community of Berlin. In fact, the 2017 event broke records with 7,000 people in attendance.

Organizers say there is no need to trailer once you get there, you can ride your ATV to and from the event, to restaurants, gas stations and retail stores. For spectators, buses shuttle crowds to the park where there are mud races, demo rides, live music and food.

Thousands Flood Seafood Fest
Since launched by the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce in 1988 to promote local restaurants and offer samplings of seafood specialties, the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival has grown to become one of the “Top 100 Events in North America,” as proclaimed by the American Bus Association numerous times. Attendance at the event, which will be held Sept. 7-9, is now estimated at 150,000.

Lobster roll eating contest at the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival. Courtesy of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce.

John Nyhan, chamber president, says the festival extends the lucrative summer season at Hampton Beach. “One of the great things is that we have looked at ways of extending the beach season and do away with the old philosophy that the beach is only open eight weeks a year,” Nyhan says. “The whole business community at the beach and the greater Seacoast benefit from having this large event.”

And it is a true community undertaking. Between the Knights of Columbus, Rotary Club and the chamber, around 600 volunteers will help at this year’s festival. “We shut down Ocean Boulevard the Tuesday after Labor Day. It gives us three days to turn Hampton Beach into a little village. We hold the three-day festival and then take three days to break down,” Nyhan says.

The festival includes two large food tents, a street beer tent, a beach beer tent, two large stages, fireworks, skydivers, 60 crafters and 50 food vendors. The local shops get involved by holding end-of-the-season sidewalk sales.

A concert at the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival. Courtesy of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce.


“It’s millions of dollars when you add it all up—sales, hotel rooms, and the state makes out because of rooms and meals taxes,” Nyhan says.
Planning for such a large crowd can be a logistical nightmare, but organizers seem to have it under control. “Parking is not a problem. We make it easy through a partnership with First Student bus company using 11 remote parking lots. It’s so easy to come in, find a free parking space and hop on a bus. They are on a continuous run and drop you right at the gate,” he says.

Nyhan says Service Credit Union, as part of their sponsorship, provides free admission to active duty military, and Ford Motor Company will demo the new Ford Mustang. He says visitors come from all over the country and plan their vacations around the event. Even volunteers come from New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic. “Everybody wins: the folks that come, that work and the surrounding businesses,” Nyhan says.

NH’s Glitz and Glam
The NH Film Festival, being held Oct. 11-14, attracts about 10,000 people over the course of four days through a combination of individual tickets, weekend and VIP passes, as well as filmmakers and sponsors to Portsmouth.

A panel discussion at the NH Film Festival. Courtesy photo.

Executive Director Nicole Gregg says the festival is part of a global film festival circuit, which helps draw attention to the city. “We have filmmakers coming in from all over the world,” Gregg says. “We have been ranked as a top festival. I’ve seen Portsmouth listed in various publications because it has a film festival. It makes the city seem very current.”

Over the past two years, the festival screened 207 new films from around the globe, including 87 with ties to NH. In addition to world and U.S. premieres, the festival also premiers New England films, such as “The Witch,” written and directed by Lee native Robert Eggers and winner of two Independent Spirit Awards; “Manglehorn,” produced by Manchester native Lisa Muskat and starring Al Pacino; and “Chronic,” co-produced by Concord native Chris Stinson and winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes. There were panels on documentary topics such as the state’s heroin epidemic and Portsmouth’s African burial ground, and also on why NH is considered by some as a political documentary filmmaker’s paradise.

Using an arts and economic prosperity calculator, the film festival brings about $300,000 into the local economy, which includes restaurant visits, hotel rooms, parking and rental fees. Gregg says businesses can be sponsors and also find creative ways to take advantage of the people coming into the city for the festival, as restaurants create special menus and hotels offer special packages.

Gregg says the festival attracts a range of attendees, including New Englanders here to spend a week in Portsmouth and see some of the most highly anticipated films making the rounds that haven’t come to theaters yet. “Then you have a whole crew of local attendees who come for the after-parties, to meet filmmakers, welcome them to New Hampshire and hang out,” Gregg says. “The artists and filmmakers look forward to workshops and the red carpet on opening night, and the Saturday night comedy panel has become a favorite.”

Gregg says the Young Filmmaker Workshop, organized by John Herman, is a special piece of the festival, as it highlights filmmakers in high school who are just starting to sink their teeth into the business.

Pumpkin Fest Scares Up Crowd
After being a staple event in Keene for years, the NH Pumpkin Festival continues to draw massive crowds even after being moved to Laconia four years ago.

Beginning in 1999, the group “Let it Shine” organized the Keene Pumpkin Festival, and six times, they broke the Guinness World Record for largest display of jack-o’-lanterns. But after the 2015 festival ended in violence with police in riot gear descending to disperse a rowdy crowd, the city wouldn’t issue a permit the following year. Charlie St. Clair, the organizer of Laconia Motorcycle Week, helped bring the event to Laconia, where it is produced by the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. President Karmen Gifford says it a great addition to the area after Columbus Day weekend, when tourism slows down.

“We just took it and ran with it, our downtown is very different logistically, so it is a very different festival,” Gifford says. “We created a street festival.”

This year’s festival will be held Oct. 13 and 14, and hopes are high to continue building the crowds. The Pumpkin Festival is not a ticketed event, but the chamber uses drones to get a rough headcount, which they estimated at 40,000 in 2017.

Above: The NH Pumpkin Festival. Photo by Amber Howie.

“We figured that the average person will spend about $25 [which] multiplied by 40,000 is a million-dollar impact,” Gifford says.

The main attraction is the 20,000+ jack-o-lanterns that line the streets. It takes at least 100 volunteers, or as Gifford says, “It takes a village to light all those candles and even just to count the pumpkins.”

In addition to the carved pumpkins lining the streets, Laconia Harley-Davidson in Meredith organizes bands to provide entertainment, and Grappone Automotive Group sponsored a street last year to provide space for nonprofits to interact with visitors. There is also a road race, a beer garden, kiddie rides, a 200-foot zip line and children’s games. The Zombie Walk is quickly becoming a favorite as well. Gifford says nearby corn mazes did well because an event is all about experiences.

“We look at it as a way to enhance the business community and engage as many groups as possible,” Gifford says. “The City of Laconia is wonderful to work with, too. We couldn’t put this on without them. We work closely with police, fire and recreation,  and we couldn’t do it without their support.”

Spend A Day Downtown
Bookending the summer season are two one-day festivals largely intended to celebrate their host cities but, over the decades, have grown into regional favorites. Market Square Day in Portsmouth, being held June 9, and Apple Harvest Day in Dover, being held Oct. 6, bring families, food and fun to their respective downtowns for a day. Each begins with a road race, which helps to draw people to the city, as the runners and their families often hang around after the race for the festivities.

Now in its 41st year, Market Square Day is organized by the nonprofit Pro Portsmouth Inc. According to Executive Director Barbara Massar, the group’s signature events include Children’s Day, Summer in The Street and First Night Portsmouth, but the longest-running and best-known event is Market Square Day with typical attendance at 50,000 to 60,000.

Market Square Day in Portsmouth. Courtesy of Pro Portsmouth Inc.

Massar says the annual festival was started in the late 1970s to bring people back downtown. She admits it’s hard for people who visit Portsmouth today to imagine a time when that was necessary.

While the city of Portsmouth is a partner, it’s not a free ride for the event. “We pay for permits and policing, and we are billed like any group,” she says. “Despite the fees, the relationship is extraordinary, and we couldn’t do what we do without the foundation of mutual respect. It is really important.”

Like all big events, security is an important consideration. Massar says protocols have been in place for years, going back to 9/11 when many large events, especially “First Night” celebrations shut down. “Over time it has changed a little but then after the Boston Marathon, everything ratcheted back up,” Massar says. “We started putting large vehicles at the end of every street, so a vehicle could not drive into the festival. It is not ideal, but we would rather be safe than have to explain later that we didn’t think it would happen.”

Much of the information about the festival’s economic impact is anecdotal, such as when businesses hear customers say they came for Market Square Day and decided to come back to see and do more. “It was one of the first things I did when I relocated to the Seacoast,” Massar says. “And it was one of the reasons I decided to move to Portsmouth.”  

According to Massar, there are about 150 to 165 vendors that take part and about 100 volunteers, with much of the work related to the road race that kicks off the day. “We are very lucky that we have a core group of volunteers who want to do the same thing every year, and that new people and new groups are always interested,” she says.

Local businesses can be sponsors and if they have stores downtown, they get in at special rate. Massar says it helps keep the focus local. “The day is three things in one: a road race, a street festival with amazing food, and it’s a concert,” Massar says. “Whether you’re a sports fan, a foodie, there to enjoy the music or just someone who wants to hang with the crowd, you are probably going to find something you like.”

Going into its 34th year, Dover’s Apple Harvest Day is always held on the first Saturday in October, when an unseasonably warm day can pack the streets of the state’s fourth-largest city. The event is organized by the Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce, and Executive Director Katie Mac-

Kinnon says knowing the number of attendees is difficult as there is no admission fee and no ticketing. The chamber relies on Dover Fire and Rescue to do the head counts.

“We think it was about 60,000 in 2017. The event is held rain or shine, so the crowds are weather dependent. It is growing steadily and even in bad weather we get about 40,000,” MacKinnon says.

Like Market Square Day, the festival was seen as a way to get folks back downtown “to help economic development and entice people to come shop and eat,” MacKinnon says.

Apples, the state’s most significant agricultural product, play a starring role on the day. “We do have a lot of apple-themed foods activities. Orchard Street is our apple vendor spot where they can interact with local farms and restaurants. Nearby Henry Law Park, behind the NH Children’s Museum, is dedicated as a kid-zone with trains, pony rides, wildlife encounters and bouncy houses.

The volunteer force is about 200 strong, and the event relies on a strong and healthy partnership with city, which helps provide security and a local mover, Calling All Cargo (among this year’s Business of the Year winners), helps event staff load up and distribute all the materials downtown, and then they use the large trucks to block to roads.

Although the festival closes a large portion of the main street through the city, there is wide support from the business community. “We reach out in advance to let the businesses know they can get a free spot in front of their store. It is common sense,” MacKinnon says.

While the economic impact of Apple Harvest Day is again, largely anecdotal, MacKinnon says she hears from the businesses that they, “were slammed all day” and it’s one of the busiest days of the years, which tells her the festival is serving its true purpose.

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