There are hundreds of Visitor Information centres across Australia - 264 accredited in New South Wales and Victoria alone, according to state tourism websites.[1,2] Over recent years, the role of VICs has transitioned from information providers to centres of business generation through bookings of accommodation, tours and cruises. They are now seen to provide an essential role in harnessing business for the local economy, by maximising the dollars visitors spend in a region and funnelling them to appropriate businesses.
A Visitor Information Centre's key role is to promote an area and help orient visitors to local attractions and businesses. But they can have other functions as well: Visitor Information Centres (VICs) play a role in controlling and filtering visitor flows and substituting for on-site visits to environmentally sensitive areas. VICs can include spaces for community meetings and for tourism authorities' administration and research.
They can also provide a site for promoting locally produced goods (like art and craft or produce such as cheese and wine), and a venue for local events. Centre staff can directly recommend specific retailers and restaurants to visitors, thus promoting additional businesses in the area. Visitor Information Centres can perform an additional public relations function, acting to improve a government's image and convincing visitors that the respective agencies are doing a good job in managing the area.
Writing in the Journal of Tourism Studies, Dr Phillip Pearce has drawn on the work of a plethora of researchers to conceptualise these ‘multiple overlapping functions'.The Visitor Centre's role will largely determine its function and scale, varying from large gateway visitor centres to small specific visitor centres. For instance, whole of region promotion is likely to be a core function for a Gateway type of centre.
Providing information: what and how?
In-person users of Visitor Centres perceive information, assistance and maps to be key functions of a Visitor Information Centre, according to a survey at Melbourne's Federation Square, reported in a 2007 CRC for Sustainable Tourism technical paper. The main information they need relates to attractions, timing and travel information such as directions. VIC visitors prefer traditional information sources, (in the form of written information, maps and verbal information) over electronic forms.
However the CRC paper also recognises that VICs are also major providers of information for visitors through the internet before their arrival at their destination, and during their visit. A growing number of Australian domestic and international visitors in Australia are using the internet to seek information and make reservations, especially in certain market segments (for instance young backpackers).
Lately, phone apps are also emerging as substitutes for paper tourist guides. The growth of the internet as a tool of information exchange is one impetus for changing the way VICs perform their task.
There are other factors at play too. A 2003 paper by Advance Tourism identified the closure of State Tourism Organisations sales offices in major capital cities, along with the cessation of NRMA and RACV booking services, as leading to an upsurge in booking and enquiries through Visitor Information Centres. It suggests that Australian Visitor Information Centres are transitioning to becoming a ‘shop window' for a destination, or a ‘sales tool', with an expanded business focus including promotion of businesses that are not directly related to tourism.
A changing role
This shift in the role of Visitor Information Centres means they are no longer simply providers of information, but are now also centres of business generation for the region through bookings of accommodation, tours and cruises. They now provide an essential role in harnessing business for the local economy, by maximising the dollars visitors spend in a region and funnelling them to appropriate businesses.
There is evidence that VICs can have this effect - research into VICs in Victoria, New South Wales and Canada has found that, in all three contexts, the presence of VIC in a tourism region corresponds with increased visitor spending. Research by Tourism NSW has also found those who visited a VIC stayed longer and visited more attractions.
Some success factors for Visitor Information Centres
Insights from the tourism research literature suggest some key success factors for VICs, and provide some illustrative examples.
A high exposure/ profile location coupled with a compelling and welcoming appearance that does not detract from the high value natural surrounds or heritage streetscapes
in an area.
Research from the United States indicates how important the location of the Visitor Information Centre is in terms of distance from State highways in maximising visitation and increasing visitor yield. A poorly located Visitor Information Centre can be seen as a barrier to use, as can the opening hours. Aspect and appearance are also important. A Centre should be both noticeable and inviting, but at the same time it should not intrude on high value natural surrounds or heritage streetscapes in an area. With visitors today seeking green educational experiences it is also important that Visitor Information Centres emphasize environment protection, communication and interpretation.
The co-location of other businesses, such as cafes or tourism related facilities, which help to bolster visitor traffic (i.e. the concept of a Hub rather than a standalone VIC).
In the United States, Visitor Information Centres are called ‘Welcome Centres' and generally include cafeterias and children's play facilities. In Western Australia, six Visitor Information Centres have been developed that also double as community hubs for high tech facilities such as internet and two-way video conferencing.10 There are also examples in Western Australia of private businesses providing visitor information services. Obviously the need to ensure the visitor market remains the primary audience and that visitors are independently serviced remains integral to success in these co-location arrangements.
Aligning the functionality and design of the centre itself with the information needs of prospective visitors.
Understanding the function of the individual centre and the type of visitors that it is seeking to attract and maintain is key to the success of a Visitor Information Centre. Besides influencing the design and layout, a detailed knowledge of the type of visitors expected and the information they require will help determine opening hours and whether additions such as
a cafe would be useful.
Ensuring knowledgeable, trained, proactive and friendly staff man the centre and that they are actively encouraged to engage personally with visitors, providing quality referrals to visitors about local attractions and opportunities.
Complementary information technology based information provision and booking services.
Visitor Information Centres that are pro-active in marketing their destinations, including via the internet, will achieve benefits for the local economy and tourism sector. Ongoing networking with other Visitor Information Centres in the region is also important in maintaining and improving service quality.
In New Zealand, a successful model promoting tourism that more heavily relies on information technologies, particularly the internet is the i-SITE Visitor Centres. Managed by Tourism New Zealand, with 90 Visitor centres across New Zealand and a central website that is updated daily, these visitor centres have added significant value to local economies in New Zealand. Research on these centres found that ninety percent of visitors that used an I-Site Visitor Centre made bookings. They also provide an easy distribution channel for tourist businesses to connect with visitors to the region, further promoting economic development.
On the other hand, VICs that do not embrace technological change may be at risk of underperformance.
Footnotes and references
http://www.visitvictoria.com/Information/Visitor-information-centres.asp... accessed 6 march 2012
2. A Visitor Information Centre can be defined as ‘a clearly labelled, publicly accessible, physical space with personnel providing predominantly free of charge information to facilitate traveller experiences' (Pearce, P.L. 2004)
3. Pearce, P.L, 2004, ‘The Functions and Planning of Visitor Centres in Regional Tourism', The Journal of Tourism Studies. 15(1): 8-16.
4. as conceptualised by Pearce (2004)
5. Deery, M, Jago, L, Mistilis, N, D'Ambra, J, Richards, F and Carson, D, 2007, Visitor Information Centres, best practice in information dissemination, Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre.
7. Advance Tourism, 2003, Visitor Information Centres-can they operate at profit?
8. Fallon, L.D and Kriwoken, L.K, 2002, Key Elements Contributing to Effective and Sustainable Visitor Centres: An Evaluation of the Strahan Visitor Centre Tasmania, Australia, Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre, Australia.
9. Deery, M, Jago, L, Mistilis, N, D'Ambra, J, Richards, F and Carson, D, 2007, Visitor Information Centres, best practice in information dissemination, CRC Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre.
10. Western Australia Tourism Commission, Visitor Servicing Study, 2004. Section 2, The Future of Visitor Servicing.
11. Tourism New Zealand- i-SITE network. Accessed 6th January 2011. http://www.tourismnewzealand.com/developing-nz-tourism/developing-the-tourism-industry/i-site-new-zealand/about-the-i-site-network/
SGS Urbecon Vol 1 2012
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