Welcome Centers Are a Boon for Business, and Visitors too

June 29, 2017 • 7 min read
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

What do you think are the two most asked questions when a visitor enters a new city?

“Where can I find a city map?” and, “I only have a couple hours: what should I do?”

One of the best places to find answers to these questions are at a city’s visitor center, sometimes called welcome centers. These centers play a major role in introducing new guests to their respective city or state. At the end of the day, they can make or break how a person feels about the place they’re visiting.

What Makes A Good Visitor Center?

In large cities like New Orleans or San Francisco, and smaller cities like Astoria, Oregon or Vicksburg, Mississippi, a good visitor center has staffed desks where guests can ask questions, get directions to nearby restaurants, and pick up free brochures about nearby attractions. Some visitor’s centers have things of local, regional, or even national interest, like rare artifacts or small knickknacks like coins, stamps or sports memorabilia.

The first welcome center in the United States opened on May 4, 1935 in New Buffalo, Michigan on U.S. Route 12. Over the next few decades, welcome centers were built in cities across the country.

Portland, Oregon’s first visitor center opened its doors approximately 35 years ago, sometime in the early 1980s.

Portland’s Living Room

visitor centers

The city’s most popular visitor center is located in Portland’s “Living Room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square. This center is managed and funded by Travel Portland, the destination marketing organization for Portland.

Susan Palmer, Visitor Center Services Manager for Travel Portland, says that center has two primary functions. First, it welcomes visitors to the city and gives them some orientation for navigating the city. Second, the center provides recommendations so Portland’s guests have the best experience possible. This includes where to stay, where to eat and where to drink. Not to mention things to see and do.

Visitor centers are crucial to how guests interact with a city, and they play a major role supporting the local travel industry as well.

“A great visitor center is vital to local tourism,” said Spencer. “A warm welcome and knowledgeable assistance from a visitor center is the first impression for a traveler, and can make all the difference in the economic impact of their visit.”

It’s vital that visitor centers communicate easily and freely with all of their guests. Although most of the Portland visitor center’s printed material are in English, they have printed visitor’s guides in Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, French and German. The Travel Portland website also features translations for these languages, in addition to Spanish and Italian.

Visitor Centers Are Assets to Small Businesses Too

visitor centers

Small businesses can benefit greatly from getting involved with their local visitor center.

“(Small businesses) get excellent exposure from the thousands of visitors that come through our doors,” said Spencer. “When staff and our volunteers learn about new small businesses in our neighborhoods, we recommend them to our visitors, even when they’re considered ‘off the beaten path’.”

At Travel Portland, small businesses can have a brochure at the visitor information center if they become a Travel Portland partner. The fee for joining helps fund the mission of Travel Portland. “We reach out personally to the member business owners to learn about their business, and then we promote their products and events to our staff, volunteers and visitors,” said Spencer.

In addition, small business owners can participate in familiarization (FAM) tours, arranged for the center’s volunteers, so they can go out into the community and experience the business.

That experience is what it’s all about. Changes in technology have impacted the way guests interact with local visitor centers.

Technology As Tour Guide

visitor centers

“The biggest evolution we observe in visitors to Portland is how they are using technology,” said Spencer. “Smart phones and tablets are used in tandem with paper maps. We now have tablets available for visitors to browse information about the city.”

Local small business professionals can also volunteer at visitor centers. Travel Portland is primarily staffed by volunteers. According to Spencer, their center has three full-time staff members, one part-time staff member and 70 volunteers.


There are other ways that locals, including business owners, can take advantage of a visitor center.

“We have locals who stop in for information about new businesses, event calendars, and business coupons,” said Spencer. “Some come in for information to give their out-of-town guests.”

A team of knowledgeable, dedicated staff and volunteers who enjoy being ambassadors for their city not only help visitors, they help ensure the survival of small businesses in their cities and regions.

Travelportland.com contains a wealth of information for visitors and locals alike.

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