Skift Take

Visitor centers can rebrand themselves as places where travelers can get help both online and in-person. Offering Wi-Fi is a big incentive that gets them closer to the real monetizer: the gift shop.

Travelers desire for free Wi-Fi when they travel consistently ranks at the top of any survey, whether it be hotels, cruise ships, airlines, or city streets.

And travelers’ desire to check-in with friends or share photos on social media while visiting attractions can be stymied when no Wi-Fi networks pop-up on their smartphones, requiring them to begrudgingly use their own data packages both at home and abroad.

Despite the U.S. Department of Interior’s stellar record on social media, Wi-Fi is a rare commodity across the U.S. National Park system. America’s 58 national parks host millions of visitors annually and present some of the country’s most scenic views and Instagram-worthy photo opportunities, but the absence of Wi-Fi only crimps potential engagement travelers could have with their social audiences.

“Wi-Fi isn’t widely available at any of our visitor centers or parks,” said Jeffrey Olsen, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Park Service. “It’s something that’s under discussion and we believe there’s going to be a pilot project but nothing has taken off yet.”

The Park Service has apps for some of its parks, providing visitor information and some requirie a Wi-Fi connection. Many of these parks are in rural areas where cell service, let alone Wi-Fi, is sparsely available, making apps less accessible if visitors can’t download them at an attraction.

To compensate, the Service still relies heavily on its signature park rangers to field visitor questions and facilitate offline conversations about the parks.

Olsen is doubtful visitor centers will disappear completely as technology continues improving and instead believes their future trademark will involve rangers talking with travelers but moving further away from the buildings themselves.

“I think as we keep moving forward we will expand into the world of meeting visitors outdoors in the parks themselves,” said Olsen.

The Invisible Visitor Center

The Times Square Alliance in New York City believed it echoed this vision when it permanently closed its brick and mortar visitor center two years ago. The alliance spent $1 million on renovations and created a mini museum in an attempt to create new interest.

“The number of visitors we had coming to the visitor center kept declining over time and we very actively looked at ways to save the visitor center,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. “But more and more people were getting their information online, so right now we’re looking at how to make our website more robust.”

Tompkins says the Alliance’s website became the focal point of the alliance’s customer service operation when its visitor center shut its doors. Last year the site averaged 207,000 unique visitors a month with the U.S. accounting for most of the traffic and the U.K, Germany and Australia taking the other largest wedges.

“We still have 50 public safety officers located in Times Square all the time every day and 80% of their job is answering common tourist questions,” said Tompkins.

The alliance also lacks a free public Wi-Fi network for visitors.

“We’re in discussion with Wi-Fi providers but right now we don’t have a timeline for implementing a single network,” said Tompkins.

Stonehenge’s Approach

With a new visitor center and free Wi-Fi, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, sits on the other end of the spectrum from Times Square. Unlike many visitor centers, travelers don’t have the option of bypassing the visitor center and must enter the building to purchase admission and access the site.

English Heritage, the U.K. organization managing the Stonehenge site, extols the visitor center’s interactive and immersive exhibits but the true tech savvyness exists in its smartphone audio guides. Rather than wearing a traditional audio guide around their necks, visitors can download them onto their devices.

Another selling point for baiting travelers with Wi-Fi so they enter visitor centers: the gift shop. Albeit a meager amount, English Heritage said it still sells 150,000 postcards, for example, each year at Stonehenge despite the proliferation of camera-enabled devices. If nothing else, souvenirs bring tourists through the doors as much as Wi-Fi does.

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Tags: national parks, times square, wifi

Photo credit: A visitor center in Glacier National Park in Montana. GlacierNPS / Flickr

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