The Transformation of the United States Visitor Centers and the Future of Visitor Experience

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<span>The Transformation of the United States Visitor Centers and the Future of Visitor Experience</span>

I will put this out here – first of all, this is an opinion piece, based on 10 years in the travel industry and 20 years in technology.  There weren’t many articles of information on visitor centers when I started thinking about the visitor experience. All of it was related to retail which is where I suppose I got my start as my first job was at Macy’s.  I wasn’t a steward of experience at that point, but I learned something early on – people who work in retail, restaurants, and hotels – I call all of it hospitality, are unique.   You have to have a love for what you do and for helping people or making someone’s day better at least from my perspective to be good at this industry. It isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone, maybe that is why drinking and partying are natural parts of this industry to blow off some steam.

Either way, the journey that has led me here started with thinking through what makes a good visitor experience. When I say visitor experience, I mean In-Destination, On-Property where the rubber meets the road. For Travel, I didn’t focus on the ‘getting there’ part of the experience – trains, planes and automobiles can of course be a tough part of the journey.  But let's focus on how we connect and drive the best experience once we’re in the destination. Now I have written many blogs about this process, but my focus shifted in 2020. I started thinking about what will change in this section of experience and I was hit with the already diminishing situation of visitor centers.

I thought about the fact that most states and tourism organizations treated visitor centers as the red-headed stepchild (no offense to my gingers out there). It was an afterthought and had no real relevance to marketing for many years. However, that started changing, and here is where the story begins.  First off, I have traveled Europe and Asia for many years and the centers there were fantastic! Many built it like an Apple store or simply built to truly help you have a great experience. As I flew back into NYC and stopped by a few east coast centers I realized how bad it had gotten. These centers were an afterthought for so long that many were just in awful shape, with old, outdated information, maps, and dirty trash piled up in the corners.  Was this really how we wanted to represent the greatest country and region in the world?  I realize America is going through a transition right now but to me this was unacceptable.

As a technologist, a hotel owner, and someone who works with hundreds of destinations, I have made it my mission to transform, redesign, and rethink centers throughout North America. So here goes the layout of what I feel will help the US get back on track and represent their destinations the best we can.  The fact is this is not a one size fits all situation, it is a one-focus-fits-all, learn how to help your visitors, locals, and stakeholders have the best experience, connect and grow. 

From this point onwards, I am going to throw in some research and articles written about visitor centers the few there are. Let me start here:

  1. Visitor Centers are useful key parts of any destination, they help visitors have a better experience and they drive more engagement and revenue period.
  2. Does this mean they have to all be Brick and Mortar? No, it doesn’t mean it has to be thoughtful and focused on your brand.
  3. It can still be connected around people, but it must be surrounded by technology and ways to drive awareness and excitement (see any attraction or theme park).

Now how do we get back in the game to ensure our centers can compete with Asia, Europe, and the like? Well, let me lay out my recommendations on how this happens as well as what I have seen with many of our growing number of destinations and states that we work with.

  1. Establish with the community and political figures the reason you have or want to have a visitor center, show them real data, and connect the core reason to upgrade or establish new ways to drive visitor experience.
    •    What does your current visitor center talk about you and how do you value your customers?
    •    Good time to note that technology done right will have people counters, demographic recognition, and new ways to learn about your visitors.
  2. Take a look at retail, hotels, and malls areas that you consider as driving experience and connection, what is their perception, and value what are they doing well in your mind?

Odds are these locations have some key attributes if you really look closely.

  1. They have a logo, brand name, color theme, connection to what they are selling, a flow of movement through the location, and ways to easily get to a checkout, person, or area of interest.
  2.  They likely look clean, open and in many cases the desks people operate behind are open as well allowing easy access and openness to that person, creating a sharing environment (see Apple stores).

Now after you have thought through how you can clean, improve, redesign, and open your location, then you are on the right path. Note this doesn’t have to be a ground-up, maybe a strong spring cleaning and paint touch-up.

Let’s get to the meat of this transformation, and I will start off with vendors, ideas, and the secret sauce TECHNOLOGY:

  1. If you are doing a remodel or ground up look for a design company that can help you do this right and likely work with your agency to get the colors and layouts going in the right direction.
  2. Something you may want to consider with well over 50 visitor center remodels under our belt, I realize some organizations don’t have the money or time to do this process, which is time-consuming, and honestly, there are some other options that will get you very similar results.

Looking to redesign? Here are some savings tips.

  1. Find an organization that can do design renderings for you, these types of companies are the future of simplified design with the ability to take your brand and space dimensions and in a matter of weeks present you rendered 3d models of what is possible with the space (talk to us we can help).
  2. Note for ground-up buildings design companies will help with getting furniture and all the little detailed items you need for the inside of the center so it’s best to go with a company that can do this.

Servicing the next generation of travelers, this could be a blog in itself but I am going to cut right to the chase.

  1. Customers want options, and these options are connected forever with technology, make no mistake if you don’t think this is how it is you are already 5 years behind.
    •    Customers want self-service and 81% want more of these options.
    •    78% of millennials will use technology over talking with a human.
    •   It’s not just one device or option it’s all of them, we call this Omnichannel, and it’s been out for a solid 10 years time to catch up.

So, what are these options you ask:

  1. Clear paths to humans.  Yes, I said humans are still relevant and a good part of any strategy.
  2. Now does this human have to be sitting in front of me, now they can be chatting, video conference, and more.
    •    Note I am not going to talk about AI in this blog but it’s a game changer and if you’re not looking at chat and AI at this moment you are on the downswing.
  3. Technology, ok this is my sweet spot and what we love to do at True Omni so here goes:
    •    Technology should be designed into your experience, your flow pattern, and even your arrival patterns.
    •    Providing key access and different types of devices is the key for any organization.
    •    As well if you chose a good vendor, they could integrate with all your existing partners, and this will make it easy.
    •    Companies like True Omni can do all the heavy lifting including site surveys, setup, installation, and support.

What technology should you look at here are the top ones, and yes, your next question is how many people at this moment will use this tech, over 40% and growing each day?

  1. Interactive Kiosks, not the old Kiosks you have sitting in your closet at the center but new technology, that automatically updates, providing relevant information, easy exploration, sharing, and let’s not forget mapping, weather, and easy ways to build itineraries.
  2. Digital Signage – Yes you need screens, you need lots of them, as big as you can get, this will drive people to your center, and it opens up everything we have talked about to allow awareness and ways to educate and engage your visitors.
  3. Mobile – No I don’t care about your mobile-friendly website or that your organization likes to use the word Mobile First, Mobile is going to reflect the area, and in my recommendation, the Kiosk and other touchpoints, will provide Point of Interest information, Chat, and easy connection features to help Transportation, Reservations, and Ticketing
  4. Mobile Visitor Centers, yes, you can easily build mobile centers that have the technology and all the features below and roll them right into your largest events, local community areas and build your value and represent your brand as it deserves to be.

YES, it’s time to connect your visitors to the best things to do and make it easy to know when it starts. Make it easy for me to book right there, and if your really cool allow me to build this into a list of my favorites or itinerary so I can keep track of the things I am going to do! Don’t get me started with kid-friendly, it is real and parents need all the help they can get.

So now you have it, stop waiting North America, pick up your game and let’s rethink and reimagine the visitor center and experience. We need to be competitive, and I know we all want to be the best. We have so much to offer, let’s do this right. What can I say if you don’t get help with True Omni get help somewhere.  Give us a call, we are on a mission to see this transformation and are happy to share, help and organize anything we can to get you to the next level. Contact us today at [email protected] or call 888-334-6664, and let’s work together to create a visitor center that will drive engagement and revenue for your destination.


About The Author

Douglas Ralston

President & CEO
True Omni

Throughout his 20 years of tenure with the technical and digital industry, Doug continuously reinforces a seamless solution for marketing and industrial development. He focused his career creating impactful products in order to redefine brand experience, which eventually steered technology businesses to Fortune 500 companies such as Symantec, Panasonic, Microsoft, Cisco, and Citrix. Doug's industry-wide background in a commerce solution, sales, social, and digital strategy also equipped him to work with some of the biggest brands in travel, hospitality, and retail commerce.

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