It’s a lot harder to run visitor centers nowadays, between COVID’s relentless bullshittery and the challenge of keeping them adequately staffed. With the abundance of information in those little devices we keep in our pockets, the question is becoming more and more common: is the visitor center concept dead?
To that, I say no — not really. It’s going to change, as everything does, but there will always be a persistent need for visitor centers in every destination that relies on tourism. I say this with absolute certainty if for no other reason than this: people typically suck at travel planning.
Yes, we have Google and TripAdvisor to help us plan trips but here’s the thing: very few of us are really any good at it. When I get to a new place, I’m usually somewhat disoriented (not always from in-flight cocktails) and have little locational awareness beyond the airport and the hotel. A visitor center is a place I can pop in and get some idea of what’s where so I don’t end up wandering into a part of town I shouldn’t (like southside Chicago – that happened. Once.).
I know I’m not alone in the need for visitor centers, but that doesn’t make their job any easier. It also doesn’t mean that they need to stay the same. The model does need to evolve, and here are some ways that I see them moving into the future.
Provide something unexpected in your visitor center.
Within your center, no matter how small it is, there’s an opportunity to create an unexpectedly positive experience. For example, did you know that there are awards for tourism toilets? Yes, there are, and here’s a winner from a few years back.
A toilet is one thing that none of us care to think about but use everyday. For a traveler, the toilet in the visitor center is probably one of the few that’s open to the public. I’m not saying that your restroom is the only thing you can make interesting; take a look around and see what ordinary things you can make extraordinary. By making one or two things in your center unexpectedly exceptional, you’re fueling word-of-mouth and giving a positive introduction to your community.
Take your center to your visitors.
Usually, your welcome center is in the heart of town — somewhere that’s hard to miss. And that’s great, but it still doesn’t mean that someone new can find you. Instead of waiting for them to walk in the door, try setting up shop where those visitors already are: the airport, outside in your shopping district, or even as Corpus Christi did — with golf carts.
This approach doesn’t have to be labor-intensive, either. For teams of only one or two people, talk with your business partners about ways that you can establish a non-obtrusive presence within their shops, hotels and restaurants. Something as simple as a QR code on a table tent or a small tabletop banner can go a long way in being where your visitors are, even when you can’t.
Make your visitor center an attraction in itself.
I could write an entire chapter about the ways that you can make your visitor center an attraction, but I’ll save that for my next book (the most recent one is here if you’re interested). One easy win-win is to plan business partner “takeovers” like art shows and food trucks on weekends where you expect an increase in foot traffic. This allows your local businesses to get heightened visibility while your visitors get an elevated welcome experience.
Another simple way to make your center an attraction is to design it to make people pull out their cameras. Backdrops, selfie frames, even outdoor structures (the safer to climb, the better) can encourage travelers to stop for a contribution to their Instagram feed. Consider something sustainable that helps identify your destination and visitors will take care of the rest. Seriously, if people will pose for a selfie in front of this, the options are truly endless.