Transforming Visitor Centers into Experience Centers


By Douglas Ralston, President and CEO of OmniExperience

The next generation of travelers doesn’t see the value in the VIC as with previous generations, in some cases traffic is decreasing and destinations are looking for answers.  Millennials and Gen Z use their phones to give them direction and recommendations for travel, and over 40% see little to no reason to go to a visitor center.  Just as with retail there is a huge shift in the way consumers interact with brands and this is no different from travel. In retail, for many years it was known as the death of brick and mortar, but we all know that is not actually the case it’s the evolution of these industries and if you don’t evolve you die.

One of the challenges is knowing what to do and it’s a mixture of things based on your location, however, the biggest mistake is doing nothing or keeping to the same trends or traditional aspects which will produce the same results.   If you want to attract new types of visitors, you have to do more than have a bathroom and a refill station. Unless Visitor Centers start the transformation to experience centers with connections to digital sharing and interactive components most will continue to see declining numbers. Communities and even visitors still want the VIC, they just want it to evolve to their terms just like retail and other industries.

The economics of the visitor center like retail doesn’t make sense unless you have a plan to be relevant. In retail, it’s called conversion rates and its studied extensively to ensure its at min. of 25% level.  However, to understand how to better engage, you must implement some traditional and digital tools to help evolve your centers and provide measurable data.  Things like people count, demographic recognition, digital surveys and guestbooks help drive data and provide tools to more effectively connect with visitors during and after their trip.

I highly recommend as you look to increase visitor experience review the many great studies and articles, available on our site and others like the below. 

1. Set up your centers for success.

The very first thing you’ll want to look at is how your center is set up. Where are the displays?  How are you attracting and engaging visitor and locals as they walk by, or come into the location?

Here are some ideas:

  • Use your “power wall” wisely. If you’re in the US (or a country where people drive on the right side of the road), use your right wall to make a big statement, because customers naturally turn to the right when they walk in.  
    •  Digital Displays, Video Walls, With Mapping and Interactive engagement is key.   If budget is tight look for a Graphic with Maps and Historic or Key areas to catch the visitor’s eye
  • Remove excess merchandise from the floor (i.e., only have one of each size or product on the floor) to keep the center from looking cluttered.  If you have brochure walls, organize them and keep them lean start pushing more toward digital content
    • Consider new ways to show off your attractions or key information such as pop up or digital signage to make it easy to identify areas of interest and keep the brochures and information consolidated with keyways to show digital sharing or access on their mobile device

2. Mind your decompression zone.

Which is the first 5 to 15 feet inside your front door. Visitors who are in this part of your center are prone to distractions, which is why most experts agree that you should keep the decompression zone simple and uncluttered. Avoid placing too many products or fixtures in this area, as people will likely just walk right by them.

  • A recommended area for Interactive Kiosks or ways to get users to engage within the first point of walk in, it helps during high traffic times, lowers any perceived wait time and gets them right to the content they can take on the road with them

2. Build your flow, connect with bathroom users.

Customers can easily walk by key points of visitor information if they are focused only on going to bathrooms.  Here are a few ways to get them to stop and engage. 

  • Provide key information, such as weather, directions, special events and offers.

Utilizing strategically placed digital signage with local content, events, and information will grab the attention of any visitor.    

  • Provide a connection point of Interactive Touch with things such as Top 5 things to do over the weekend in your Destination.   You can always use digital points to push them to talk with Staff, or have staff engage with technology for guests.

  • Open up the center, look at using more than one desk or area people can meet to discuss their needs.  Look at ways to Go Mobile by helping visitors take things on the go. By allowing your staff to engage visitors anywhere on the floor, you’ll get rid of your queue and help them move on with their travel plans.
    • Using ways to connect with mobile from interactive Kiosks, Touchscreens or simply QR codes and ways to share, combined with tablets or other tools that can help show the destination and tools and increase engagement options with staff.

3. Recognize that your employees play a huge role in boosting conversions.

This point is part and parcel of the previous point.  It’s essential that you train your employees well. In terms of increasing your conversion rate, there are some important things your staff can be taught to do:

  • Have them greet and engage with each and every visitor in the center.

An easy method to ensure that your staff is greeting everyone is to have someone work in the front zone specifically to greet people.  With the ability to point visitors to technology points, brochures or maps

  • Train your staff on how to prompt customers to share what they’re looking for.

The bulk of this is to ensure that they don’t ask yes or no questions. For instance, “Can I help you find something?” will most often be met with “No.” But “What are you looking for today?” “How long are you in Town” requires the shopper or visitor to engage with the question a bit more, even if the answer is negative.

  • Put in the effort — and mean it.

Once your staff member has identified the customer’s wants/needs, train them to use technology or ways to show visitors you have many ways to solve their problem or give them valuable information.

Have top 5 questions ready to be answered with options for them to engage and ensure the best experience. If there are traffic or sustainability issues direct them to the best times of day and provide valuable options to keep the family and kids most likely come up with a great solution.

4. Give free samples, nibbles or drinks.

Ever wonder why Costco has made free samples a part of their business model? It’s for a number of reasons, but the main one is that, as Dan Ariely, a Duke University behavioral economist, says, “Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct.”

If you’re selling something that can’t be given away as samples, then find something else to offer. Several retailers are now serving drinks, to get people to come in and linger.

  • Think about special maps, hiking guides, things for kids or animals
  • If looking toward technology Ale Trails or Scavenger Hunts that people can use on their phone and get virtual prizes are continuing to evolve this process

5. Use social proof.

Social proof means showing your visitors, what other people have enjoyed showing smiling people of their age, or demographic instantly attracts people to ask more and want to know where this person was at.

  • Connect your Online and Visitor Center social content by connecting to a UGC provider, there are many and your marketing team may already be using one you can integrate with
  • Digital Signage and Interactive come alive with Social User Generated Content, allow customers to engage and share experiences while in the center or on their mobile
  • Connect UGC to their trip, through mobile gamification as discussed above
  • Have the ability to show paper or interactive content to back up the great places’ visitors are talking about

Use technology to improve your experience

Allowing customers to connect in the manner they like is core to any retail or visitor-based organization, allowing kiosks to look up of inventory items, available tickets and showing visuals and videos of these experiences increases engagement by over 50%.  Utilizing and embracing technology that your guests are using is key to the next generation of center, people want to use their phone so offer ways to share, save and even earn points and special offers while there are in town.  Finally providing traditional models that allow your staff to engage on the floor or behind the counter using interactive technology can help improve speed, visual connections to areas and bring out the uniqueness of each area that visitors can take with them and share through social channels, help enforce your brand and connecting visitors to locals and local connection points.    The name of the game is growing personalization and being ready for the faster device-agnostic visitor while incorporating your staff and the great information they have to enhance your visitor’s experience.

About the Author

Doug Ralston headshot
Doug Ralston

President & CEO


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.