• Who’s visiting the visitor centres? 
  • Do destinations still need them?
  • Are they worth the effort and cost?

Ask these questions of 10 Destination Management Organisations (DMOs), and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. For every destination that closes its visitor centre, another expands or innovates, so maybe the right answer is — it depends.

We asked three DMOs that are totally committed to their visitor centres to answer a few questions about their visitor centre strategies and share how they've evolved.

Q: At a time when many destinations are scaling back or closing their visitor centres, you find great value in them. Why are visitor/welcome centres valuable to your destination?

Louise: We believe that as town centres undergo rapid change and respond to the impact of Covid, in-person contact and the ability to adapt to changing visitor and sector needs is vital. We are repurposing what our visitor center is for and how it is used. Responsible tourism to us is about connectivity and part of a holistic approach is to have a hybrid digital and people-focused service, in an exceptional welcoming space. 

Katrine: They encourage visitors to spend more time in our area and by improving the quality of their visit they will hopefully return. We have also given invaluable advice to local businesses and visitors regarding COVID restrictions.

Clare: Visitors still value the personal touch especially when it's from a friendly and approachable team. They can get far more from a few minutes straight forward conversation than what can sometimes be a bland and impersonal experience with endless searching online. Our Plymouth Tourist Information Centre team has a wealth of local knowledge and experience to share. 

The centre is also a great asset to local businesses who use us a conduit with the council and DMO, finding it easier to express themselves to people they know rather than faceless names, particularly for smaller businesses not used to the commercial world or with very small budgets, we can help promote them and advise them of opportunities available. 

Our Visitor Centre is no longer just a TIC and offers visitors an overall experience, the basics are still here and a firm favourite; maps, brochures timetables etc. but new digital information screens and Facebook, presence provide 24 hour updates. We are also home to the Mayflower Museum, which is also managed by the staff – providing another reason for visitors to come into the building and learn about Plymouth and all we have to offer. 


Q: What is your strategy around visitor centres and how has it changed over time? 
 
Louise: Our strategy rests on understanding that we must model best practice through being responsive to change. We understand that we are a key link to facilitating change in others, both visitor habits and tourism provider practice for example. This join-up will improve experiences and ensure we are environmentally responsible.  Our visitor centre is an integral part of the process whereas previously their role was perhaps limited and stuck.
 
Katrine: If we were reliant on Torbay Council our centre would have closed several years ago. Thankfully we are funded by BID Levy Payers.

Clare: With the advancement of digital technology, we have adapted to offer a more personal, tailored experience when helping visitors, making an effort to discuss visitors' interests and create unique plans for them using our experience and local knowledge. Providing a much more personalised experience, something that can’t be found with a search engine. Where we once helped with planning holidays before guests arrived the focus is now adding to the experience when they arrive, adding flesh to the bones of ideas and plans made from research online and helping make aspirations a reality.

As previously mentioned we have changed completely as a visitor centre adapting to modern needs, joining forces with the Mayflower Museum, which shares the same building and managed by the TIC team, and more recently investing in our retail operation to create a unique shopping experience featuring locally and sustainably produced gifts, books and souvenirs. 

Some things will never change. Our priorities are always providing a warm welcome, having confidence in what we are selling and ensuring that our product knowledge is accurate and current so that visitors trust us.

Q: Share three fun facts about your visitor/welcome centres. 
 
Louise:  Fun facts - located in the same building as a swimming pool, 10 seconds from the sea and run by the Sidmouth Town Council — closest to local people as decision-makers, incredibly well placed to balance mutually beneficial needs of both the local community and visitors. 
 
Katrine: Some of the questions we answered this winter included:

  • What do we know about snails?
  • Does Torquay have any shops where I can buy food?
  • Why does Brixham Harbour have trawlers and Torquay Harbour nice yachts?

Clare:  Fact 1 – The site of our building has been associated with visitors to the City for hundreds of years. We are located adjacent to the Mayflower Pilgrims famous departure point 402 years ago, and the site was previously occupied by the Brunswick Hotel , destroyed in the Blitz of the Second World War, rebuilt as a Restaurant and now as a Museum and Visitor Centre 

Fact 2 – We are greeted on our stroll into the office most mornings by Spearmint, a seal that has become something of a local personality and sits and suns himself on the slipways opposite our building.

Fact 3 -  We have had our share of famous visitors too, once minding Dolly Partons sister Stella’s shopping whilst she visited the area, Aled Jones introduced Songs of Praise from our Museum and Beth, one of our team, was dragged out to appear on Steven Mulherns;  In For  A Penny, but managed to avoid a soaking. 
 
Q: How do you feel the role of visitor centres will evolve in the years ahead, or how should it evolve?
 
Louise:  Those centres that continue to exist will be lean and focused and operate as part of a digital strategy. Crucially, the building of relationships, providing leadership to others and providing an environment for change and innovation will be central. This will be delivered to visitors, to local groups and business through shared aims for responsible tourism. 

Katrine: The use of websites and online booking will continue to increase but there is still a strong demand for a face-to-face, unbiased, welcoming service.  We also have a mobile Visitor Information Stand which we take to events such as the English Riviera Air Show.
 
Clare: Moving forward partnerships are key.  We work closely with local business associations, the city’s two BIDs and of course, Destination Plymouth. We are a key part of the local community, taking a very hands-on approach to events.  There’s never a raft race, Christmas lifeboat delivery or Pirate weekend that doesn’t see us all hands-on-deck in costume and character. 

The Visitor Centre could manage an app hosting local information with bookable contact around attractions and events. Providing a live chat area where customers can interact with our centre staff to have an accessible, yet still personal experience. Added features could see the team create itineraries personalised to visitors requirements. 

We need to build on our reputations as a trusted source of information, with so much misinformation in circulation. We have seen a rise in misinformation and our knowledge has proved invaluable to allow people to accurately plan and experience their holidays.

It’s important to promote everything local and investing in our retail offer has allowed us to do this and promote our city message ‘Geddon Plymouth – Shop Local’

With so many remote ways of working today, the value of personal interaction for genuine visitor feedback cannot be overlooked     
 


Q: What advice do you have for DMOs considering whether to scale back or move forward with visitor centres?
 
Louise:  My advice would be simply to focus first on letting go of what centres provided in the past and to reimagine what the future can look like. Knowing that people who share a vision can adapt more quickly and catalyse new ideas and momentum. 

Katrine: Not all visitors are internet users and even if they are they will often use a Visitor Information Centre to check what they have read or heard is correct. We also have Visitor Information Points in local gift shops, cafes, visitor attractions and libraries which helps to make the provision of information more available and accessible.
 
Clare: Sadly over the years Visitor Centres have been an easy short term target to reduce costs but once that knowledge is lost, its lost forever.  They are a logical point at which to connect with your customers.

By investing in modern technology rather than fighting against the inevitable, we are able to interact with our visitors 24/7 if necessary through Facebook, providing live updates and important information 

Remember customers are human too and have very different needs that sometimes need that extra little bit of care and attention that only another human can provide to reassure and rectify. 
 
Q: Tell us something you’re particularly proud of concerning your visitor centre program.
 
Louise:  I am proud that we listened to people's need for a person-centred approach, even when others were closing all around because they were perhaps looking at the past rather than focusing on the future. We work as a team with diverse skills. We took risks and reimagined what we wanted to be and know that our journey continues. 
 
Katrine: The service proudly holds the 2019 Silver South West Tourism Excellence Award for Visitor Information Centre of the Year, 2019, Gold Devon Award for Visitor Information Service Provider of the Year, 2014 Visit England Silver Award for Visitor Information Provider of the Year, and 2014 South West Gold Award for Tourist Information Service.
 
Clare: I take immense pride in my team.  There are just 5 of us at Plymouth TIC ( covering the equivalent of three full time posts) opening the office 7 days a week . Between us with have some 70 years experience in Tourist Information. 

A flick through our Visitor comments book underlines how much we are still appreciated:

Local resident: "Thank you, this place is priceless and the staff so knowledgeable"

Kim from Birmingham: "So nice to have a personal touch and not a machine"

Lycee de Ressins, Nantes, France: "A very warm welcome , great help, thanks a lot"

Anna from London: "Brilliant , friendly and informative"

Abe – Zambia: "Great place, great staff"

Janet – Suffolk:  "What a lovely team, so helpful and polite" 

Clare continues: "There was no rest for the team during Lockdown when we formed part of the team delivering the Business Grants Schemes, a lifeline to local businesses which saw the team rise to the challenge, which delivered 16 different schemes amounting to £92 million to 7440 business." 

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