LACONIA — This might only be the fourth year that Laconia has hosted the NH Pumpkin Festival, but it has already become tied to the city’s identity, said Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.
That became apparent some weeks ago, when she fielded a phone call from across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation, also known as the BBC.
“The BBC is definitely going to be here, they will be filming for ‘Autumnwatch’ in the afternoon on Saturday,” Gifford said. “They are going to be roaming the festival.”
“Autumnwatch – New England,” part of a co-production partnership with PBS, will portray iconic elements of fall in New England. Travel expert Samantha Brown, presenter Chris Packham and cinematographer Bob Poole will examine the changing fall foliage, look for moose and wild turkeys, learn about Native American history and, yes, visit the NH Pumpkin Festival.
The footage will be broadcast on PBS on Oct. 17-19, from 8 to 9 p.m. each night.
“I was really excited when (the producer) reached out to me. She had heard about the festival and knew she was going to be in New England. The fact that we got their attention made me realize how big of a reach we have,” Gifford said.
The NH Pumpkin Festival, which Laconia adopted after it was kicked out of Keene, has proven a hit. Gifford said it has taken a few years to mold the festival to best fit the geography of downtown.
The first year, 2015, the festival was contained to a few pockets and parking lots. Since then, the plan has been expanded to become a street festival. “It really helped the festival flow,” Gifford said, and now the downtown festival footprint has been filled with vendors, games, amusement rides, live music stages, a food cook-off and rubber duck race, and an antique car show.
“Those all add to the elements of the festival, we have to be careful that we balance it as well as showcasing our downtown community and all the things we have in the Lakes Region,” Gifford said. The festival kicked off on Friday night with a zombie walk and will open on Saturday with the Runaway Pumpkin road race, pancake breakfast at Holy Trinity School, and the downtown vendors and music will start at noon.
Last year, an estimated 40,000 people came to Laconia for the Pumpkin Festival. With a favorable forecast, and judging by the amount of phone calls and social media engagement, Gifford predicts an even bigger crowd.
“I think we’re going to get a lot of people this year,” she said.
Time to show off
The success of the Pumpkin Festival is partly due to the number of people, businesses and organizations that take part in, and benefit from, the event, said Amy Landers, executive director of the Lakes Region Tourism Association.
“It’s fabulous that there are so many different organizations involved,” she said. “Overall, a lot of great support from different organizations in the community.”
The Runaway Pumpkin race is a great example, she said. It’s promoted along with the rest of the festival, benefits the WOW Trail organization, and is sponsored by 25 businesses, most of which are local. It’s a clever move, she noted, because a road race will attract runners, who will, in turn, bring their families for the festival.
“Combining events like that helps everybody,” she said.
As a tourism expert, Landers said that the hardest part of her job is just getting people to come to a place they’ve never visited before. Events like the Pumpkin Festival will draw visitors that are likely to return.
“This region has a lot to show off, this is another event that we’re able to produce and show off to our visitors… Any time we can get somebody here, we know they are going to love the Lakes Region and become repeat visitors.”
Just a short drive down Route 11, the Fireside Inn and Suites in Gilford is busier than usual, and Frank Tuscano, regional manager, said it’s all thanks to the festival.
“We’re better than last year, we’re eight percent higher than last year,” he said, referring to advance bookings. Fireside has 83 rooms, including 24 suites, and only four suites are available for this weekend. He wouldn’t normally be this busy in mid-October.
“We’ll be full this weekend,” he said.
And it’s not just more guests that he’s noticing – they’re coming from farther away, too. On Friday morning, he had six guests checking out after an overnight stay. They were from the United Kingdom, had spent the previous day exploring the Upper Valley and were planning to spend Friday touring Vermont.
“We did not have that last year,” he said. Tuscano expected the effect of the region’s exposure through the BBC program to be “unbelievable.”
“Let’s fill these hotels, let’s fill these restaurants. We don’t want to lose the Pumpkin Fest, it’s great for this area,” said Tuscano.