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A Different Kind of Vacation: Take a Retro Tour

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 2, 2014

Retro Tour

Gilcrest Cottages and Motel, one of the participants in the NH Retro Tour. (Photo Courtesy of Sequel Design Associates)

For those who want a different sort of vacation adventure, there is good news. A group of business people and professionals have joined together to create a new, wonderful, and unique, mapped-out route called the New Hampshire Retro Tour.

According to Mark Okrant, professor of tourism management, director of the Institute for New Hampshire Studies at Plymouth State University (PSU), and the author of two books on the subject of motoring vacations in the 1950s and ’60s (his new book is entitled No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels), the old motor courts and motels that pepper such roads as Route 3 from Concord to the Canadian border were once popular places for vacationers to stay.

In the 1940s through 1960s, a typical family would pack the car and drive such a route, stopping for riverside picnics, overnight motel and cottage colony stays, and visits to places such as Polar Caves and the Old Man of the Mountain. It was a slower-paced, less-demanding way to spend a vacation and families were adept at making their own fun along the route.

“The book looks at a number of case studies and uses vignettes/little stories to talk about the motel industry in its prime. We look to see how the motel has declined and how it can come back, Mark said. “I spent a lot of time on Route 44 and Route One, the Boston Post Road, and the places in between when writing the book.”

He said the idea of a Retro Tour began at Plymouth State University and he was immediately interested. “In my age group, a lot of people traveled the old U.S. highway systems; these were not the interstates we use today. We would take a vacation by getting in the car and driving for a week. I have fond memories of those vacations. When I became a tourism professor, I determined to find a way to do my part to save as many of the properties as possible.”

By “those properties” Mark is referring to the motels and cottage colonies that still exist along such areas as Route 3 from Laconia to Lincoln and points north.

With a 40-year interest in the subject, Mark has lectured on the subject in his PSU classes and elsewhere. “As a kid, I stayed in the motels and visited places like Polar Caves and Lost River,” he said.

The NH Office of Travel and Tourism saw the value in a workshop on how to build itineraries to promote such businesses and three workshops took place at PSU. Along with Dr. Ben Amsden, a PSU Center for Rural Partnership professor, Mark invited people from Hew Hampshire’s Lakes Region and North Country to attend the workshops.

The group found they really enjoyed spending time with one another and continued to meet and help form the idea of a Retro Tour of the area.

“It is really the old Ben Franklin adage (and I am paraphrasing) that we all hang together or we hang alone,” he said. He is referring to the power to keep businesses thriving by having local businesses join the Retro Tour roster. “There are still a lot of those businesses from the 1950s and ’60s around today and we want them to stay around. If the places link together, we can create an experience that the traveling public will relate to and provide patronage to. One business cannot do it alone.”

Marketing obviously is a huge part of the Retro Tour effort. Mark is enthusiastic about a professional web design and marketing company coordinating the efforts for the Retro Tour. Sequel Design Associates, Inc. is spearheading the marketing and is very involved with the Retro Tour project.

Says Nicolas Minacapelli, senior programmer and web developer for Sequel Design, “I am part of the Pemigewasset Valley Chamber of Commerce and my company does web and print marketing and logo designs. The chamber brought me in for the Retro Tour branding and we also launched the website”

The Retro Tour is a non-profit group and covers businesses along Route 3 and nearby, such as Route 49. Nicolas concurs with Mark that there are many businesses in the central part of the state up through the White Mountains that thrived before the interstate system was built. Today, some of those businesses get missed and they need greater exposure.

“This is the first year of the Retro Tour and we are just getting started. By next year we will have a better idea of how it is going,” he said. “It is a great opportunity to get businesses active and to give them exposure.”

Nicolas said the Retro Tour can reach a different market. “It is a mix of people,” he says. “We are marketing to a few different groups: first, the generation that grew up taking 1950s and ’60s road trips. This tour will recapture the experience for them and for their families. Secondly, we are marketing to younger people who have time to get in the car and take a road trip for a long weekend.”

The Retro Tour website is a fun site to visit, with a charming logo of a family car from the 1960s. It is pure fun and evokes the time when families such as Mark’s drove from motel to motel, enjoying roadside attractions along the way.

Among the informative aspects of the website is an extensive list of businesses involved in the Retro Tour. Some are from the 1950s and ’60s or earlier and some are newer, but all can see the value of getting listed on the Retro Tour.

For those who want to experience a different, slower-paced vacation or long weekend, the Retro Tour offers cottage colonies, motels, shops, attractions, and eateries. On the Things To Do page, visitors can plan fun hikes, scenic train rides, waterfall walks, biking trails, scenic drives, and much more.

The philosophy of the Retro Tour New Hampshire website invites visitors to “See how family vacations used to be, when getting there was more than half the fun.”

For those who want a different sort of vacation — one at a slower pace with a chance to make lasting memories for the family, the Retro Tour might be just the thing.

Mark Okrant will be giving a free talk on his book, No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels, at the Belknap Mill at 1 Mill Plaza in downtown Laconia on June 10 at 5:30 p.m. There also will be a book-signing during the event. 

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