N.H. Mysteries Entertain, Teach Tourism

Tourism Management Professor Mark Okrant poses in his office at Plymouth State University. in Plymouth, N.H., Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. Okrant has solved a budget problem at the University by writing murder mysteries that take place at at some of New England's best known tourism spots. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) AP Photo/Jim Cole

Elegant resorts long for glowing accounts of their sumptuous meals, breathtaking views and meticulous service - but how about a shady employee, a missing guest, a murder?

Mark Okrant, whose day job is teaching the tourism business to college students, makes resort owners smile about it all in a series of mystery novels he began writing about 15 years ago.

Okrant's mysteries were born out of a budget crunch at Plymouth State University that forced him to cut back on field trips in his tourism planning and development class.

His first, "Judson's Island," is set on a fictional island off the Maine coast. The main character returns after being released from prison for a murder he didn't commit to find the real killer. Through the search, Okrant traces the evolution and effects of tourism development on the hypothetical island.

Published in 1995, the book has been used as a text at Plymouth State and at least 20 other schools.

"The whole idea was to immerse the students in a fictional community," Okrant said, "though I'm kind of sorry I did it that way - I could have done better with sales if I'd used a real community."

He did that in his next two books, "A Last Resort" and "I Knew You When."

Set in historic grand hotels in New Hampshire's northern mountains, the books can be used for teaching the hospitality business - or to follow fictional professor Kary Turnell as he solves crimes quietly, trying not to upset guests.

At the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, Okrant called on a good friend, resort president Stephen Barba, to get his foot in the door.

Knowing that resorts abhor publicity about situations much milder than a murder or missing person, Okrant was surprised the door wasn't slammed shut.

"I frankly expected him to say 'Get out of here,' but he said 'This is pretty cool."'

Barba said his 48 years associated with the Balsams taught him that guests are fascinated with the famous people or odd happenings that came before them.

"When Mark said he was thinking of teaching tourism to his students by writing these mysteries that will keep people turning the pages and unwittingly learning all about how that particular vacation destination operates, it was an interesting concept," Barba said. "The fact that a murder was involved, I knew would not turn anybody off. If anything, it would turn them on."

At the Balsams, and later at the Mount Washington Resort, Okrant interviewed and shadowed managers and employees to learn about their culture, security, food and beverage administration, event planning, security and attitudes, as well as the history of the resorts and their nooks and crannies.

In "A Last Resort," Turnell unravels the intricacies of the resort business as he unravels the mystery of a missing guest at the Balsams.

The resort opened just after the Civil War. It is known to tourists and political junkies as the place where every voter in tiny Dixville Notch gathers at midnight to cast the first votes in the presidential election.

"I Knew You When" is the tale of a political candidate with a past and the death of teacher at a conference at the Mount Washington resort.

The resort was opened in 1902, after 250 Italian craftsmen were brought in to help build it. In 1944, it hosted the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, in which delegates around the world established the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Barba said the books do a good job showing how the real world intrudes on the fantasy experience of a luxury resort.

"You deal with people in what's supposed to be the perfect world, the perfect place, a resort apart from the rest of the world, and yet everything about the real world is there. You just have to do your best to cover it up," he said.

That requires solving problems, and Okrant says his books help students develop the "investigative mindset" essential for tourism executives. He's even proposed a course around the books: "Using Killer Resorts to Instruct Tourism and Hospitality Managers."

Okrant said his research taught him that running a resort or hotel is a "very interesting adversarial relationship."

"The person at the hotel comes out, smiles at you, says 'Yessir. We are so happy you came,' then goes back in the back room and says 'Do you believe what that blank is asking us to do?"'

Warn Barson, a fictional Balsams general manager based partly on Barba, voices another Okrant insight in "The Last Resort."

"We're similar to dairy farming; this is a round-the-clock, hands-on operation," Barson says. "To an extent, we hoteliers are the prisoners of our guests. If we serve them well, they leave us alone to do our jobs. However, if something goes wrong, they come after us with a vengeance and there is nowhere to hide."

Note to students: The inquiring professor in the book says he found that description "most insightful."
On the Net:
  • MARK OKRANT MYSTERIES (Oak Manor Publishing)
  • MOUNT WASHINGTON RESORT: Bretton Woods, N.H. | 800-314-1752.
  • THE BALSAMS: Dixville Notch, N.H. | 877-225-7267.
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