MANCHESTER -- "I'm a Vermonta, I do what I wanta," the bumper sticker says. It speaks to the essential independence many associate with the state. If it didn't sound like an oxymoron, you might even call this aversion to conformity part of the "Vermont brand."
The brand concept was the focus of the 23rd annual Vermont Travel Industry Conference, held November 30 and December 1 at Manchester's super-swanky Equinox Resort. About 350 marketers and members of the hospitality industry showed up to attend workshops on culinary tourism and website promotion, and to discuss this year's theme: "From Yesterday to Tomorrow: Marketing the Vermont Brand."
Lawmakers and marketers have been talking a lot lately about the state's signature qualities -- how to define them, how to defend them, and how to promote them. In January, the state's attorney general's office will issue new guidelines for producers whose goods carry the vaunted "Made in Vermont" label. And in October, the state hired Christine Werneke to be its first Chief Marketing Officer, a position the state legislature created in 2005.
Werneke, who attended the conference, says she works with state agencies to craft a consistent Vermont brand. "If everybody's sort of marching to the same beat," she says, "it helps to strengthen that value, and the message becomes much more powerful."
Werneke points out that a brand is more than just a logo or a slogan -- it's composed of "brand attributes," those qualities that spring to mind when someone mentions the state. Werneke listed a few: "beautiful, peaceful, natural and authentic. Terms like 'integrity' and 'hardworking.' And taking it to a higher level, stewardship, respect for the environment."
The conference was also packed with people who hope the Vermont brand has room for them. David Kestenbaum, of the University of Vermont's Vermont Tourism Data Center, was promoting a new initiative to fuel touring motorcoaches with a mix of diesel and biodiesel, an environmentally friendly alternative made from agricultural byproducts. He displayed two small glass bottles of the stuff made up to look like Grade A Amber. "We're connecting two of Vermont's oldest industries," he explained, "tourism and farming."
Representatives from the nonprofit Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals were also on hand. Photographer Fran Janik of Jamaica noted that although Vermont is a popular wedding destination, out-of-state couples often import their own florists, photographers, musicians and caterers.
When they think of Vermont, he said, "They think of the farmer in the flannel shirt with the chew in his mouth . . . serving food in chafing dishes at the VFW hall." Janik said the VAWP is working to counter that brand. "There are professionals that can provide a high-end service in this area," he said.
Artist Warren Kimble promoted another of Vermont's brand attributes -- lots of local art. "Art is not just painting," he told the crowd at Thursday's luncheon. "Art is everything around us."
Kimble, in his suit and bow tie, urged innkeepers to buy work from local artists and to display it in their establishments. "I go into hotels and bed-and-breakfasts and I see prints that were bought at the Atlantic gift show," he said. "Naughty, naughty, naughty!"
Afterwards, Cindy Delaney, executive director of VTIC Inc., added a few of her own brand attributes. To many people, she said, Vermont is "pure, simple . . . preserving the rural simple life and all the things that go with that."
Asked if anyone had talked about how environmentally friendly but controversial wind-development projects fit into that picture, she answered diplomatically, "They didn't touch that issue a whole lot here."