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Visitor centers were, for decades, one of the first stops many travelers made when they first got to a place.
But with the growth of smartphones and mobile devices – essentially providing much of the same information a brick and mortar visitor center would have – some tourism boards feel that visitor centers have been rendered obsolete.
VisitScotland, for example, last month said that it will close 39 visitor centers, or two-thirds of its facilities, in the next two years. That would leave 26 “high-impact regional hub” visitor centers across the country, said Barbara Clark, a spokeswoman for VisitScotland.
Clark said foot traffic to VisitScotland visitor centers has fallen 58 percent over the past 10 years. Along with closing visitor centers, the tourism board is also launching an effort to dispense information about local tourism businesses and attractions, and deploying four mobile visitor-center vans across Scotland.
VisitScotland said its data show two-thirds of visitors to Scotland access information about the country online. “Our research shows us that visitors are switching to wanting their information at a time and place that suits them,” said Clark.
“The first thing visitors do when they arrive in Scotland is switch on their mobile phone and VisitScotland is responding to this by an ongoing investment of around £10 million ($11.1 million) in digital and innovative information channels,” she said.
But VisitScotland has also found that travelers want to learn about the destination from locals, too. About half of Scotland’s visitors prefer to get information on what to do from locals, and one-third would like to get information from their accommodation provider.
Some 1500 Scottish businesses have signed onto VisitScotland’s information partner program, which helps businesses get resources to help familiarize travelers with the local area.
Testing Pop-Up Marketing using instagram
Last week, VisitScotland fielded a pop-up marketing effort in central London, Scotland’s largest source market, to put its new anytime, anywhere information strategy in practice in a more visual way.
Clark said the pop-up wasn’t connected to visitor center closings and any future pop-ups aren’t meant to replace traditional visitor centers. But the pop-up’s concept seems to align with the tourism board’s vision for making visitor information more mobile and accessible.
When travelers entered the venue, they saw a floor-to-ceiling screen displaying hundreds of user-generated Instagram photos of Scotland such as scenic routes, restaurants, experiences and hotels.
VisitScotland staff helped visitors cherry pick which photos they found most appealing and created a suggested Scottish vacation itinerary. Staff also had virtual reality headsets on hand to showcase the country and some of the places in the Instagram photos.
But the Instagram travel agency is still an experiment to see how the market responds and VisitScotland has no immediate plans to open other pop-ups, said Clark. “The Instagram travel agency is a pilot and a chance for us to speak directly to the Instagram audience,” she said. “It is an example of one of the many innovative ways we are looking to appeal to existing and potential visitors.”
Although VisitScotland calls the venue a travel agency, it doesn’t actually sell any travel.
VisitScotland also has one of the largest social media followings of any European destination with more than 383,000 Instagram followers alone.
Clark said followers of the VisitScotland Instagram account have made nearly 76,000 saves of photos in the past three months. Instagram’s save feature, which became available late last year, lets travelers save photos to refer back to much like Facebook lets users save links, for example, and travelers can also group photos into collections for different trips.
Some 61 percent of Instagram’s 800 million users – many of them millennials in their 20s and 30s – use Instagram when planning a trip to a new place, according to a Facebook study from 2016.
VisitScotland is using the pop-up and similar initiatives to attract millennials after it found that the demographic is worth more than $1 billion to the Scottish economy.
Some 4.3 million millennial travelers already visit Scotland each year and in August, the tourism board launched a TV ad campaign on the UK’s E4 TV channel, which is primarily aimed at a millennial audience, to help convince more UK millennial travelers to plan trips to Scotland.
International Travelers Are Driving Need For Visitor Centers
While VisitScotland is shuttering many of its visitor centers, Los Angeles’ tourism board is expanding its information centers and plans to open more.
Visits to Los Angeles area visitor centers have increased 3.4 percent year-over-year and the Los Angeles tourism board sees these buildings as valuable tools to engage with travelers and get better feedback from its partners, said Adam Burke, the Los Angeles tourism board’s chief administrative and financial officer.
Los Angeles also shares Scotland’s viewpoint that travelers want access to information wherever they are, said Burke. “There will always be people who are completely self-sufficient,” he said. “But we’re seeing that visitor centers are especially important for the international market. People want to sit down and get an insider’s view.”
Each visitor center has staff available who speak either English, Spanish or Chinese to cater to the city’s growing position as an international hub and gateway to and from Asia.
Los Angeles has 31 million overnight visitors in 2016 and seven million of those visitors were international. China is already the city’s largest overseas market with more than one million Chinese visitors last year, for example.
Having Korean-speaking staff at its next visitor center in the pipeline, which will be next to the InterContential hotel in downtown LA, is also a priority, said Burke.
The city currently has three visitor centers and one newly opened, co-branded visitor center in San Pedro which is part of Los Angeles. “I think there’s still some room for organic growth in our visitor centers,” said Burke. “We know that Los Angeles is such a huge area and we want to try to break it down for travelers. Maybe up in the valley or down in Venice could be other possible locations and more co-branded centers could be an option.”
Although the tourism board needed to move one of its visitor centers from Hollywood Boulevard – LA’s iconic tourist drag. “We then heard from a number of businesses in Hollywood that they were getting declines in referrals around the same time that we needed to move.”
Brochures aren’t dead
Burke said that paper brochures, longtime staples of visitor centers and perhaps symbols of a bygone era for many travelers, are still popular. “For a long time people thought the move towards mobile would supplant paper,” he said.
“But even with our visitors from China and Japan where smarthphones are so prevalent, demand hasn’t abated in the least for printed materials,” said Burke.
In fact, demand for paper brochures is the same or greater in some circumstances than it was five years ago, said Burke. “One of the biggest changes over the past five years for us is providing people information before their visits which translates to our visitor centers,” he said. “A lot of people are doing homework online and coming to a visitor center and we’re helping them figure out how to do their trip.”
And if managed properly, visitor centers can be lucrative operations for local attractions. Burke said one-third of people who walk into visitor centers buy a ticket or pass to an LA area attraction and for the most part, travelers can get their tickets or passes directly on their smartphones.
LA tourism has 1,100 local attraction, restaurant and hotel partners and many go to visitor centers for familiarization meetings to update visitor center staff on their latest events and offerings.
Burke said striking the right balance between tech and human interaction will always be a challenge for the tourism board’s visitor centers. But visitor centers still have a lot going for them between the growing desire to interact with locals, global growth in international travel, and often acting as an important revenue stream for local tours and attractions.