With over 20 years of experience planning meetings, events and experiential marketing campaigns, she said her mission was to create travel experiences for corporate and individual clients. The website was designed to promote Maine hospitality and tourism businesses.
By the end of the year, she was developing partnerships, building website content and user tools such as “design your own experience,” and developing leads and hiring goals for the 2020 season.
Then her entire industry shut down. All of her clients pulled out.
Sağıroğlu pivoted, and today she says her business is thriving. Mainebiz asked about the turnaround, and the outlook for the coming season. Here’s an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: How were you affected by the pandemic?
Rachel Sağıroğlu: We were hit pretty hard. Every client we had on the books pulled out and every event pulled out. We went from having a really great first year in business to nothing.
MB: You pivoted in several ways. What was the first?
RS: I launched Experience Maine Made, an online retail site. It evolved from gift boxes that I was already creating for corporate clients and their events. I decided to put it out there for everybody to be able to order them. I’ve been working with Maine makers and artists to create custom pieces. They were a huge hit. Now I work with some hotels that use it for corporate gift boxing.
MB: What are some examples of goods offered for the gift boxes?
RS: Cheese and wine, chocolate, honeys, soaps, candles, custom laser-etched wine and pint glasses.
MB: How much business has online retail attracted?
RS: When I launched last spring, people ordered boxes to send to friends and family who couldn’t come to Maine. We probably did $10,000 in sales in a couple of months. It was just me and my daughter packing boxes in the living room. We had a good clip until the end of June. Then we had another big push leading up to Christmas. And we had A lot of corporate clients come in.
MB: What was your next pivot?
COURTESY / EXPERIENCE MAINE
RS: Another thing that happened last year was that everyone started looking at rental homes. Hotels weren’t full but rental properties last summer were, because people could quarantine at that property. So I built partnerships with rental property companies to be their concierge on record. That wasn’t part of my original business plan.
We helped guests connect with things like boat and kayak rentals, on-property lobster bakes, Maine guides, outdoor movie nights. We brought the vacation to them because they weren’t leaving the house.
That was so successful that I started reaching out to vacation rental companies all the way up to Bar Harbor and Bethel. Now I have seven partnerships. And we partnered with another travel concierge in the Bar Harbor region. I’m so busy that, just in the last month, I hired someone to work part-time.
The interesting thing is that, the more I reach out to vacation rental companies, and even to individual vacation property owners, they’re so inundated this year that they welcome the chance to offer these services to their guests and have someone manage it.
MB: How do the partnerships work?
RS: The companies have us on their website. They send communications to their guests after they book the property — ‘Here’s the private chef we work with, here’s the concierge, here’s the sommelier.’ Guests can decide if they want to utilize me for my services and then they reach out to us directly.
I take it a step further — I give each company or property I work with a concierge packet that they can send to guests. When the guests call me they’ve already seen the packet, which talks about how we work, our pricing, and lots of suggestions of activities we can organize for them — sailing charters, driving directions to the lighthouse. They call and say. ‘We love the idea of archery and a movie night.’ ‘We want to go up the coast and see the lighthouse and is there a good lobster pound on the way back?’
I have great software that puts everything together, with links and driving directions. They can download the app with the confirmation, driving directions and itinerary; they can even chat with me.
MB: How much work has that piece generated?
RS: It depends on the individual rental home company and what they have for properties. But for one that we worked with last year, by the end of the summer we had worked with 20 to 25 guests. I’d expect at least double that this year.
MB: Now you’re preparing for a third pivot. What’s that?
RS: I’m getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar store this summer, at 5 Commercial St. in Portland. It’s an experiential marketplace that includes Maine makers and artists who might not have the means to open a storefront in the Old Port. This concept will support the small business owner and struggling artist to get noticed and give them a space to showcase and sell their products.
Courtesy / Experience Maine
Sağıroğlu plans to open an Experience Maine Made store in Portland this summer, at 5 Commercial St., formerly a branch of Rosemont Market & Bakery.
Most importantly, the market will be a gathering place where guests can experience the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Maine. I’m collaborating with Kitchen Cove design to design a chef’s kitchen and JL Woodworking to design and build tasting tables. I’m also working with 2Gether Private Chefs to create and host culinary experiences out of the chef’s kitchen.
We’re shooting to open by the end of June or early July.
MB: How did you finance the store?
RS: CEI is helping us with a loan for a lot of the equipment. My husband and I are doing a lot of it with our savings.
MB: What’s your outlook for the coming season?
RS: Just in the last month I’ve been inundated with requests, not only through the properties I’ve partnered with, but also people finding me on the web looking to come to Maine — more than double than this time last year. I think it’s going to be a really busy summer.
When I talk with people, they say they have money saved up and can’t wait to get out; they’re bringing their kids, they can’t wait to see their families, they want to come and do things and see things. Every day I get one or two inquiries. I had to ramp up the onboarding process for my new hire because I need her now.
I’ve even got two or three in-person events for the summer. I think it will be slower this year. But next year will be crazy. I’m already getting inquiries for next year for destination management work.