Effective Visitor’s Centers. Providing a Small Town Welcome that Increases Business.

by Joanne Steele on August 30, 2009

It was noon. We were hungry, and the turn-off to Enderby, B.C. was coming up in 500 meters. Thanks to our rumbling bellies, we were treated to one of those small town gems this web site is all about.

After a nice lunch, we walked across the street to the visitor center. It’s not the first place you see in town, but easy enough to find.

What really impressed us was the quality of care given to visitors to the center. When we walked in center staff person, Willow Burton, was helping another customer. She took a moment to make eye contact with me and smile before returning to her work with her customer. I immediately felt welcomed.Enderby_center

When Willow approached us, she was ready to give us her full attention and answer any questions we might have. Because I was interested in more than visitor information, I encouraged her to work with other customers coming in while I was there. This also gave me time to watch a real pro in action.

She provided people with the information they requested and anticipated interests they might have, based on their questions.

I expect that the two people I watched being served spent extra hours in Enderby shopping in local stores and using local tourism services as a result of her attention.

That personal attention and anticipation of needs in a well run visitor center is something no Internet site can do for a town.

This is a perfect example of the vital connection between good information online to bring visitors to an area and excellent customer service in the visitor center once they arrive.

I have been through a number of small towns this week that have much better web sites than Enderby, but I have not found any with the high level of customer care in their visitor centers.

In small communities, this is an essential pairing. If money is drained away from on the ground visitor services to pay for a fancy web site, the town is likely NOT going to reap all the benefits that web site could bring.

So here is what other small towns can learn from Enderby BC:

1. Your visitor center staff must be thoroughly trained in all services and attractions in your region.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but this week I’ve run into centers staffed by volunteers who could do little more than unlock the front door and hand visitors some kind of regional guide.

In Enderby, Willow was up on the latest activities and attractions regionally. She helped a visitor staying one town away plan a whole day of fun in Enderby for her visiting guests… including stops along the way as they returned home. That’s money in the bank for Enderby.

2. Be sure your visitor center is easy to find.

In Enderby, the visitor center isn’t the first place you see when you enter the town, but the signage directing visitors to the center were well placed.

In the town of Armstrong, just a short distance south, the visitor center was hidden at the other end of town. I was finished with Armstrong before I even knew there was a visitor center.

In a small town, everyone knows where everything is, and it’s easy to assume that visitors will have no trouble finding their way.

Not so. Signs are vital. Years ago, four of the small towns in Siskiyou County paid for a town evaluation by an expert in giving towns a brutal evaluation of how they appeared to the visitor. All scored high in their overall visual appeal and failed miserably in the sign department.

The expert pointed out that

a. Signs should be facing the driver or walker as they pass, not be flat against buildings.

b. When the driver needs to make a turn, give them fair warning, something that most places do relatively well, but many fail to provide a reassuring sign that the driver or walker is still on the right track if there is a blocks long straight segment.

c. Don’t make them hunt for information. Get that first visitor information directional sign located just as visitors enter town.

3. Look closely at your hours. Are you open when visitors are in town?

Staffing is usually driven by funding, which is reasonable. But hours should not be.

Evaluate which days of the week are high visitor days and plan to have your center open on those days. A center open Monday through Friday when most visitor traffic is on the weekend is forgetting its mission. Talk to innkeepers and campground operators to learn which are your highest volume days. Remember, the purpose of a visitor center is to KEEP people in town not to BRING them in the first place.

Match your hours to the businesses in town. If you have lots of restaurants in town open late on the weekends, consider having a well trained volunteer in your center during those high visitor traffic hours.

Hours are never set in stone. Keep accurate visitor counts. If you’re noticing consistently slow traffic during mornings, open in the evenings instead and see if traffic picks up.

Keep your mission in mind – to keep happy visitors in town longer. Be sure your visitor center, like Enderby’s is fulfilling that mission.

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