The existence of the internet and the increased number of information tools available at destinations mean fewer queries are being addressed to VICs (visitor information centres) and tourist information desks. Many such information offices are becoming all‑purpose tourist service centres, just to survive. However, this may not be the solution for all. Perhaps some of them should focus on providing a truly welcoming experience.
Decrease in on-site tourist information requests
Thanks to the internet – the primary travel information and planning source – visitors arrive at their destinations better informed. That being said, many tourists are still interested in obtaining additional information and advice during their stay, which implies that visitor centres and tourist information offices still have a role to play. However, destinations now boast a wider variety of information sources:
- increased commercial signage
- better organized tourist information signs
- increased number of display racks (for guides, brochures and flyers)
- use of podcasts by many destinations
- more hotels offering concierge services
- advent of radio stations targeting tourists directly
Another increasingly popular option is the interactive terminal. By offering visitors fast, self-guided access to information, these terminals appeal to tourists who are less inclined to speak to a representative, increase the number of points of service and extend access to information beyond the usual business hours of information centres. These terminals can already be found in Europe (the photo pictures one in Brussels) the US and even in Canada. Given this situation, what is the role of tourist information offices?
One option: enhanced, diversified services
According to many information office administrators, visitors are now turning to them for more specific needs and services. This reality means staff must be better informed about regional products and capable of providing more specialized services. For example, visitor centres are providing information on the entire region, making hotel and restaurant reservations, and selling tickets for attractions, guided tours and local shows.
To attract more visitors, many information offices have also developed various commercial services (shops and restaurants). To preserve local flavour, some offices are focussing on shops and displays that promote and sell locally grown products as well as regional arts and crafts.
Finally, some tourist information offices are trying to become true windows on local tourism products by organizing exhibitions or holding events directly on site.
The guiding idea is that the information office becomes a “service centre”. Tourist information representatives should act as regional concierges, or super customer service agents capable of meeting a wide variety of requests, both tourism-related and not.
Examples of service centres
This approach is already in use in the US. A prime example is Philadelphia’s new $38 million multi-functional centre, the Independence Visitor Centre. There visitors can find:
- concierge and reservation service for hotels and restaurants
- information office, with a list of daily events
- ticketing for local tourist sites
- free, informative historical and orientation films
- informative, touch screen computer kiosks
- maps and brochures of parks, the city and the region
- the Pennsylvania General Store Café
- the Independence Store
- and more
For a virtual tour: www.independencevisitorcenter.com/inside.htm.
There is also the Times Square information centre in New York City that, in addition to traditional tourist services (multilingual tourist counsellors, maps, brochures, etc.), also offers:
- books, posters and other souvenirs of Times Square
- coffee, snacks and refreshments
- tickets for Broadway shows and sightseeing tours
- a post office booth
- an ATM
- free internet access (courtesy of Yahoo)
- a free digital photo sent to a friend (courtesy of Earthcam)
- free electronic postcards (courtesy of Panasonic)
- and more
Of course, having to offer such a wide variety of services puts extra pressure on the staff, who must adapt their equipment and work methods to ensure the quality of the services offered to the public. Also, it requires a major investment to be able to provide all these services. Therefore, this is not necessarily the ideal solution for all tourist information centres.
Calling all volunteers!
For many managers, just finding the staff to offer basic services is a major challenge. Unusual work schedules, seasonal fluctuations and a diverse clientele all make it difficult sometimes to recruit the necessary personnel. To meet this challenge, many destinations are training volunteers interested in welcoming visitors and sharing their passion for their part of the country. Destinations like Dallas and Vancouver are even recruiting directly on their websites.
In addition to saving money on salaries, this approach gives destinations access to a bigger bank of human resources and, more importantly, to increased community participation in welcoming visitors. Because tourists are looking for authenticity, real experiences and contact with the local culture, the presence of volunteers can help satisfy a tourist’s interest in mingling with locals.
Focus on welcoming rather than informing
If we try to define hospitality, it is often the little things that stand out – a handshake, a smile and receptiveness -rather than the service rendered. So rather than simply adopting the option of the ?super service centre,? information offices could focus instead on welcoming. Why not become an inviting, friendly place to be, that would also be frequented by locals?
Appropriately furnished and organized, these visitor centres could become drop-in centres, places where visitors and locals alike could meet for coffee, talk about what to do that day and share their experiences. Perhaps they could be places that tourists would want to visit, even if they did not need any information. After all, when they are far from home, tourists want to be thought of as friends, not strangers!
- Arseneault, Paul. “Accueil, information et interaction,” talk given at the Journées annuelles de l’accueil touristique 2006, October 26, 2006.