Tourism Committee Looks to Improve Pittsfield Visitor Center

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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The city's Visitors Center has seen a precipitous drop in use that officials believe results from a combination of factors, including its  relocation and the availability of information on the Web.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Representatives of local tourism organizations are looking for ways to improve the performance of the the city's Visitor Center, which has seen a drastic decline in visitors in recent years.
From a peak of more than 10,000 visitors in a year at its original location a decade ago, the small informational hub served around a hundred people last summer, according to Sheila Pia, director of the RSVP program that staffs it with volunteers. 
A number of factors may have contributed to the drop-off in traffic, including location, signage issues, parking and access, and an overall lack of awareness of its current whereabouts. Originally located in a South Street building owned by U-Haul, it moved for several years into the adjacent Colonial Theatre. It was briefly housed in a side room of the nearby Ben & Jerry's, then as an unstaffed room at the Colonial in 2012 before relocating to the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center last summer.  
"There's been a lot of changes over the years," Director of Cultural Development Megan Whilden said at a meeting of the city's Tourism Commission on Thursday. "It's a new location, and it's not visible from the main street, and also there's a continuing decline in use of visitors centers."
The Visitors Center will reopen at the station on Memorial Day weekend, and members of the Tourism Commission are looking for ways to improve its visibility and utility for the coming summer season.
Tourism officials said the key is getting people to know where the small retail space is, just off the main North Street thoroughfare, and establishing ease of parking and access.
Signage has been especially problematic, due to a backlog of sign requests needing to be filled by an overstretched Public Works department. Previous road signage still indicates the center to be at its former South Street location.
"It think that's probably adding a lot of confusion,"  said Downtown Inc. Executive Director Pamela Tobin.  
Another major reason for reduction is the removal of the Half Tix, the same-day half ticket program, which formerly used to be hosted out of the center but transitioned to Barrington Stage Company in 2010.
Renovation of the adjacent Persip Park pedestrian plaza, and a planned new hotel on the next block, may help to improve the situation for the Columbus Street operation, though some felt the drop in usage may also reflect changing times.
"Part of it is the evolution of Pittsfield, too," said Barrington Stage Marketing Director Laura Roudabush, emphasizing the extent that mobile technology and social media have changed how people access information about directions and attractions. "There's such a strong presence for the city of Pittsfield on the Web, that it's probably not as necessary.  Are we trying to drive people into the physical booth, or are we trying to drive them into our venues and restaurants?"
"I don't want [volunteers] to see it as a failure, because there isn't a huge amount of traffic, when there's so many factors," said Roudabush.
Whitney Center Director Ghazi Khazmi noted that the lack of use of the center does not seem to be reflective of a drop in tourism in terms of sales seen by venues and lodging.  
If traffic remains lackluster, moving the location may become a consideration in the long term.
"Changing the location is a big deal," acknowledged Whilden, who outlined three options discussed at a recent meeting with the center's volunteer staffer, "to look into, if this continues to not be the best possible location."
A free-standing kiosk structure could be installed either at the renovated Pittsfield Common, or next to its former home at the Colonial Theatre, and there have been recent proposals to potentially incorporate the visitors center into redevelopment of the city's Springside House.  
"Any little impediment is going to send people off another option to find out where to go," said Berkshire Museum Marketing Director Lesley Beck. "It's got to be easy to find, easy to park, not a whole separate trip to get in to wherever it is."

Tags: tourism,   visitors center,   

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