Friday, November 16, 2012

Visitor's Centers - A Relic of the Past?

The New Years Ball at the
Times Square Visitors Center 
The other night at an event I had the opportunity to speak with Gretchen Dykstra, the founding president and CEO of the Times Square Business Improvement District (now the Times Square Alliance) here in New York and we got to talking about the Times Square Visitors Center. For those unfamiliar with the Center, it's truly an amazing space where visitors can get up close to the famed New Year's ball and learn a bit about Times Square history in a rehabilitated former theatre located right off Times Square. When the Center was developed under Gretchen's leadership, it provided a much needed respite...a small post office, a souvenir shop, a coffee kiosk, bus tour ticket booth, etc. She mentioned that her vision was to provide a place with visitor offerings that at the time were lacking. When it opened, the visitors center was a one of a kind place that saw millions of visitors a year.

When I mentioned that the visitors center has recently seen a decline in visitation - something that the Times Square Alliance is seeking to address - I noted that the Visitors Center is an anachronism. These days, who buys stamps and sends postcards when email will do? And why would someone go inside to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks kiosk when right outside the Broadway pedestrian malls there are high end food trucks, not to mention Starbucks nearly everywhere. And the closed street and the red steps offer seating that put you right in the center of the action? Isn't that why people go to Times Square to begin with? And let's not forget the fact that visitors can now access nearly all of the information they need from smart phones - and increasingly they do.

Our conversation reminded me of a recent visit to a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike. The downstairs was PACKED. There were literally hundreds of people milling around and waiting in line to get food. When I walked upstairs to the Visitors Center, I couldn't believe what I saw. You could hear a pin drop. No one was up there.

NJ Turnpike rest stop. Lots of people below.
Upstairs is the Visitors Center.
Upstairs you could practically hear the crickets.

It got me to thinking about the resources that so many BIDs and other organizations put into what increasingly seems like a dying breed of services. Information is digital - but the ways that many organizations supply information is stuck in a time warp. I'm curious about who is tackling these issues in more innovative ways.

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