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The Functions

and Planning of
Visitor Centres
Visitor centres are distinctive
in Regional
purpose-built tourist facilities
and their multiple functions
are important in fostering
sustainable regional tourism.
The key attributes which define
a visitor centre are specified.
The analysis then proceeds by
articulating a “Four Plus”
model of visitor centre
functioning, and suggests ways
to enhance visitor centre
Philip L. Pearce
functioning among and within
centres. The possibilities for
research addressing community
participation and acceptance,
as well as longitudinal studies
on visitor centre effectiveness Introduction
including responses to
refurbishment are identified. The values of any specific society can be interpreted from the
functions of the physical infrastructure it develops. Cultures which
are sports oriented will support massive stadiums, those with
spiritual concerns maintain great cathedrals, mosques and shrines,
and those with environmental concerns create physical structures to
celebrate and protect the places they value. In the world of tourism, it
can be argued that visitor centres are a new multi-functional item
expressing the values in physical infrastructure of societies trying to
use and manage tourist attraction resources. Unlike hotels, highways
and transport nodes, the visitor centre is typically purpose built or at
least refurbished just for tourism (Knudson, Cable & Beck, 1999).
There are numerous centres in the United States, Canada, the United
Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia and they appear to be emerging
in many European and Asian destinations (Asia Travel Guide, 2004;
Tan-Collis, 1999). Importantly visitor centres along highways and in
smaller towns and communities are often a major focus for regional
tourism promotion and management (Fesenmaier & Vogt, 1993a,b;
Hobbin, 1999). This paper will direct attention to providing a
framework for undertaking visitor centre function in regional tourism
and further, attempt to outline some desirable practices to fulfil these

The meaning of the term visitor centre needs to be defined

carefully in any international context or forum. The kind of facility
which is being referred to in this paper can be defined here as:

Dr Philip Pearce is Professor of A clearly labelled, publicly accessible, physical space

Tourism, School of Business, James with personnel providing pre-dominantly free of charge
Cook University, Australia. information to facilitate travellers’ experiences.


In this designation, a visitor The “Four Plus” model of that visitor centres as defined
centre is different to a travel visitor centre functioning earlier in this paper are prevalent
agency because of the dominant in a number of western countries.
commercial emphasis of the In an effort to bring a systematic It can be suggested that the “Four
latter. Additionally a visitor understanding to the topic of Plus” model being proposed here
centre is not to be equated with a visitor centres and problems, the is most applicable to these
regional or district museum goals or objectives of such developed tourism destinations
where the emphasis is on the facilities and the people who and their promotional and
display and presentation of ser ve in them need to be managerial systems. The wider
artefacts rather than the considered. In earlier work applicability of the proposed Four
travellers’ experiences. Further, Pearce (1991) and Moscardo Plus model to other contexts will
a visitor centre requires a human (1999) identified four interlocking be considered in the closing
presence, so an information kiosk features of visitor centres. The sections of this paper.
or booth, even those rich in analysis presented in this paper
interactive computer facilities, extends the earlier work with the The main visitor linked functions
will not be considered in the newly entitled “Four Plus” model of the centres can now be spelled
ambit of the present paper. of visitor centre functioning. The out in more detail.
Nevertheless the reach of the extended model (the plus
present interest is extensive. function) draws in particular on The Promotion Function
According to one’s national the work of Fallon and Kriwoken
context and the core purpose of (2003) and Simpson (2001) who This role refers to the active
the facility, the terms used to emphasised the community promotion of the city, area or
describe the centres vary and functions and acceptance of the region. It involves a forceful
include: welcome centre, tourist visitor centre. The important agenda of what to do in the area
information centre, interpretive components and features of this and where to stay. Essentially
centre, and visitor resource centre model are considered in turn. this role is about stimulating
(Fesenmaier & Vogt, 1993a, tourist demand and often seeks to
1993b; Moscardo & Hughes, 1991; Multiple overlapping increase visitor expenditure in a
Stewart, Fesenmaier & Anderson, functions defined area (Gitelson & Perdue,
1993). The facilities may have a 1987). Commercial activities
commercial component or they It is proposed that all visitor associated with this function are
may be largely driven by centres have multiple functions, common and include the
community and civic imperatives. undertaken to differing degrees. provision of booking services and
In the latter case the symbolic The functions are promotion of local retail o f the region’s
value of the visitor centre as a the area, orientation to and products. Following Gartner
community signal that the area is enhancement of the area’s (1993) this function can be seen
serious about tourism may be of attractions, control and filtering as providing an overt, induced
considerable importance. of visitor flows and substitution information source which is
for on-site visits. Additionally, trustworthy and not excessively
Visitor centres are not just visitor centres should be self-serving. The efforts towards
central city or downtown considered as having additional accrediting visitor centres and
phenomena but appear in functions; the ‘plus’ in the Four guaranteeing the quality of their
transport nodes such as airports Plus model title. These services is essential to maintain
and railway stations, in or on the additional functions do not serve the assurance of unbiased
outskirts of small towns and near visitors but instead represent the representation of the information
major attractions and goals of visitor centres in such provided (Fodness & Murphy,
environmental sites. It is directions as providing a 1999; Hobbin, 1999).
especially the regionally based community centre, displaying the
visitor centres, their purposes pride and political achievements Orientation and Enhancement
and planning which are the focus of the area and serving as the Function
of the present concern. administrative and research
home for local tourism The second function of a visitor
The emphasis in this discussion is management. centre sees a concentration on the
on the goals of the centres rather quality of the experience for the
than financial and human Broad proposals for the visitor. It attempts to provide
resource management issues. functioning and planning of displays, suggest new locations
The latter topics are important component parts of the tourism and generally inform visitors
and structure the scale and system require commentators to about features of the region to
operating circumstances, but not consider the issue of the true promote responsible behaviour.
the functions of the centres generalisability or applicable It is about more than simply
considered here (Barrow, 1996; range of the ideas being proposed. stimulating demand and involves
Bath, 1996). It has already been suggested shaping that demand towards


sensitive appreciation according
to sustainable tourist behaviour Large “Gateway to a City” Visitor Centre
principles. It is a common theme
Function 1 Promotion
in those centres with a natural
environment emphasis but can
exist in all types of centres. This 2 Enhancement
function is consistent with basic
planning principles for 3 Filtering
interpretive practice (Benson &
Baird, 1979; Carter, 1997; 4 Substitution
Hobbin, 1999).
Plus Community Integration
Control and Filtering
Smaller Visitor Centre along a Scenic Highway
In this role, visitor centres seek
to control the flow of visitors so
Function 1 Promotion
that resources and settings come
under less pressure. Typically
such centres act as gateways and 2 Enhancement
central points for visitor use of an
area. This function may include 3 Filtering
suggestions for times of the day
to visit set locations, alternative 4 Substitution
loc ations for less crowded
experiences and the partial use of Plus Community Integration
the centre in conjunction with
other activities such as guided
tours or films to concentrate Visitor Centre at Fragile Cultural/Historical Site
visitor numbers away from
fragile sites or viewing areas.
Visitor centre staff working in a Function 1 Promotion
cent re where this function is
dominant will often have a strong 2 Enhancement
stewardship role in relation to
the resource. On this occasion 3 Filtering
visitor centre design and staff
behaviour are adopting a more 4 Substitution
powerful and potentially
controversial role in limiting Plus Community Integration
public behaviour (Hardy &
Beeton, 2001; Sugden &
Figure 1: Different functions of visitor centres according to location
Saunders, 1991).

The Substitution Function component points (such as (Ballantyne, 1995; Scheyvens,

agricultural activities or 1999; Simpson, 2001; Stewart,
A fourth function of visitor historical battle sites). Hayward, Devlin, & Kirby, 1998;
centres is to be a substitute for Substitution functions are Uzzell & Ballantyne, 1998).
the tourist attraction or at least particularly important when a
to be a substantial attraction in large number of visitors are frail, The Plus Functions
its own right. Visitors centres are ill equipped physically or are
emphasising this function are lacking knowledge to access and In earlier appraisals of visitor
often called interpretive centres understand the resource. The centre functions the non visitor
or more simply are labelled as style and content of the services components were not
tourist attractions such as a interpretive material and included. Yet, visitor centres can
Wildlife Centre. They occur in displays in the substitution act as community facilities for a
settings where the resource is function of visitor centres range of local cultural and social
inaccessible for many visitors attracts considerable debate. events, particularly where the
(marine and demanding There are key values expressed space contains a theatre or
terrestrial environments) or in the choices made to describe meeting room. Further, it can be
where the resource is scattered places, their history and the argued that the more symbolic
and hard to appreciate from its people who live and work there function of a visitor centre to


signal the importance and STAGE 1 PLANNING
significance of a town or site for • Set out a regional overview of visitor centre functions
tourism is a major reason for the • Match the mix of functions for a specific centre to the
existence of many centres. When regional overview
the physical appearance of the • Decide or adjust the specific centre’s functions
visitor centre is challenging and • Establish a signage and promotion plan
unconventional, and its displays
make powerful political points,
there can be a community
2003; Flan agan, 1996). • Ensure easy access
Extensive efforts to incorporate • Identify all users and their uses
pre-construction community • Design for the future
views are a clear imperative to • Be a model for ecological sustainability
manage the substitution
elements and the plus function of
visitor centres (c.f. Bramwell &
Lane, 2000; de Araujo &
1999; Robinson, 2000). Certainly, • Have a good physical orientation system
the plus function cannot be • Design for variety
• Use themes
ignored in trying to improve
• Make personal connections to visitors
visitor centre functioning since it • Allow for different visitor needs and interests
constitutes a powerful political
force influencing how centres
may be changed or reshaped. It
is about designing the centre to
achieve administrative and civic STAGE 4 MANAGEMENT AND MAINTENANCE
goals for the whole community • Develop service quality orientation among staff
(c.f. Fallon & Kriwoken, 2003; • Manage to embrace change and novelty in centre
Simpson, 2001). • Develop effective reporting to stakeholders
• Facilitate volunteer and community input
It is important to stress that the
Four Plus model enables visitor
Figure 2: Stages in the design and use of visitor centres
centres to be described as varying
in the emphasis they place on the
functions. In Figure 1, three centres already exist, a substantial existing research
examples of visitor centres in reconsideration of the existing evidence to support the under-
different locations with varying network within the framework lying suggestions for this good
roles are depicted. outlined may be appropriate. It practice (Blahna & Roggenbuck,
is regional and state level 1979; Field & Wagner, 1973;
The analysis of visitor centre tourism bodies which must forge Knudson et al., 1999; Mack &
functioning in the Four Plus the actions and take the Thompson, 1991; Moscardo, 1998,
model serves to introduce and initiative in these assess-ments 1999; Roggenbuck, 1992; Serrell,
structure a sequence of actions because only such organizations 1996; Tilden, 1977). Figure 2
required to enhance visitor centre can provide the external view to outlines the four stages which
functioning in a region. The core see each of the visitor centres in can be see n as a sequence of
argument of this paper is that context. Nevertheless, once the planned action.
the best practice principles for initiative is taken collaborative
visitor centre planning design efforts to make the centres work The central points itemised in
and management can be in harmony are pivotal secondary Figure 2 can be expanded as
understood within the framework steps involving the full input of follows.
of the Four Plus model. the centre managers and
Importantly, the framework and stakeholders. Setting out a regional over-
the principles taken together view, determine functions
could guide the evaluation and Enhancing visitor centre
redesign of existing centres. It functioning Figure 3 represents a regional
can be suggested that in newer plan for the location of several
destinations where there are few Four stages can be considered in centres.
visitor centres all steps in this the design and use of visitor
approach could be implemented. centres. There are principles of A regional plan drawn up by
For situations where multiple good prac tice and sometimes state or provincial level bodies


a typology of trip patterns which
ENTRY TO REGION could underpin centre design and
functions. Such functional
overviews may be difficult to
achieve and implement. They
remain a worthy goal and
Low pressure individual centre managers can
at least consider their regional
position even if a full scale
Marketing overview and provincial system is
Enhancement not yet in place.
Substitution Establish a signage plan and
Community Integration ensure easy access

Effective interpretive centres are

easy for visitors to find and
access (Fodness & Murphy,
1999). One of the ways to ensure
visitors can find and use a centre
Sub-region is to have a signage plan (Serrell,
Moderate of interest 1996). Signs on the roads visitors
pressure on SECOND use to access the centre, signs
resource VISITOR near the entrances to the centre
CENTRE and signs at other access points
that might be used such as bus
Marketing and train stations should all be
Enhancement incorporated in the plan (Moscardo
Control & Hughes, 1991). Ensuring easy
Substitution Sub-region
of interest
access means considering the
Community Integration
inclusion of turning lanes on
THIRD adjacent roads, large enough car
pressure on VISITOR parking areas with clear
resource CENTRE entrances, space and ramps for
visitors with physical disabilities,
and spaces for buses and caravans.
Identify all users and their
Community Integration
A consideration of the needs of all
users is pivotal to good visitor
Figure 3: Regional planning of visitor centres centre design (Bitgood, Benefield,
Patterson & Nabors, 1986). An
can be useful to avoid functions for centres and the mix inventory of all possible uses can
unnecessary repetition of content, of objectives for each interpretive then guide decisions about what
ensure all the important topics centre within its local and to include in the centre and how
are covered, build up a coherent regional context. The further to d esign it for maximum
message, and provide a diversity possibility exists that continuing effectiveness (Blahna & Roggen-
of experiences for visitors. Such research and planning in this buck, 1979; Knudson, Cable &
an overview should take into specific area could link the visitor Beck, 1999). Three typical
account the features of the region centre functions to the work on groups of users to consider are:
to be interpreted and the current dominant destinations in a
and anticipated flow of visitors region. For example Lue, 1. Visitors
through the region (Pearce, Crompton and Fesenmaier (1993) Who are the likely visitors to
1991). Importantly a mechanism outline en-route, base camp the centre? What kinds of
for collaborating with community regional tour and trip chaining market segments have to be
stakeholders should be patterns which could form the considered?
established in this first planning basis of integrated regional
phase (Jamal & Getz, 1999; visitor planning. Similarly Will visitors require access to
Robinson, 2000). This will guide Parolin (2001) working in the information or facilities out of
decisions on both the best region south of Sydney developed hours?


Would a café be a viable/useful materials and services wherever Use themes
addition? Or is this an option possible, and stimulate local com-
for local business or the local munity employment and pride The use of a single theme as the
council? (Lane, 1991; Moscardo, 1998). linking concept or one large idea
which connects a set of facts,
2. Staff Have a good physical topics or examples was first
Staff need space for non public orientation system proposed by Tilden (1977). A
duties. theme is a single message that
Several features can assist can be described in an active
Interpretive displays and visitors to find their way around a sentence:
activities need space for centre easily (Bitgood, Patterson
preparation and storage. & Benefield, 1988). A clear path- Example 1: the topic is octopi,
way through the centre, the the theme is “Octopi are not what
In some places staff may need placement of text panels so that you think” and the display uses
areas for emergency the flow of reading from one panel text and graphics to demonstrate
coordination. to next is from left to right, a how a number of stereotypes
pathway that does not require about octopi are inaccurate.
3. Local Communities backtracking, an introductory
The functional use of the panel or display that sets out an Example 2: the topic is worms,
centre by community groups as overview of the centre, visual the theme is “A healthy worm
well as its symbolic and barriers that prevent visitors community provides many
semiotic value both need to be from seeing too much of the surprising benefits to humans”
considered. display ahead so that they are not and the displays demonstrate all
distracted or overloaded, direc- the soil based functions of a worm
Design for the future tional signs or arrows at key colony.
points, and clear entrances and
Visitor centres are often exits are all useful orientation Example 3: the topic is ant
substantial buildings which are devices. ecology, the theme is “An ant
used over extended periods of colony is like a large city” and the
time. Extending and upgrading Design for variety information and examples are a
centres to cope with increased series of analogies matching the
visitor numbers and changing The easiest way to lose visitor roles of ants and their work to the
user needs and/or interpretive attention is to bore them with interactions in a city.
objectives can be very difficult. A repetition. E ffective inter-
consideration of options to alter pretation offers a variety of Make personal connections to
the space available for users will experiences. Variety can be built the visitors
be much appreciated by those into an interpretive display in a
responsible for the centre in the number of ways: Personal experience often shapes
future years. Some options to and directs visitor attention
consider include easily moved 1. Use a wide range of media (Moscardo, 1999). There are a
internal divisions, outdoor areas such as text, graphics, static number of ways in which
than can be easily enclosed, mod el s, dyn a mi c mo del s, interpreters can make personal
landscaping that can be easily audio visual, interactive and connections to visitors. It is
changed, and leaving a band of computer based displays possible to use examples which
space or inviolate zone around a (Serrell, 1996). In particular are connected to the everyday
centre (Gunn, 1994; Poon, 1993). it is des ir ab le t o av o id a lives of visitors. Additionally,
heavy dependence on text. using a conversational style in
Be a model for ecological the text and using similes to
sustainability 2. Encourage visitors to use all explain facts in everyday terms
t hei r se n ses th rou gh adds a human dimension to the
Good centres fit into the setting dif f er ent pa rti cip at o ry interpretation. For longer lasting
and they have an architectural activities. effects practices such as
style that either fits with the local introducing historical or local
area or ensures that they blend 3. Use a range of colours and figures, and including suggested
easily into the landscape. lighting effects to create at home actions may generate
Additionally good centres make different moods in different lasting impressions and have
the most of the setting areas. consequences (Moscardo, 1998).
incorporating key features of the
environment such as views or 4. Cover as wide a range of topics Allow for different visitor
access to special sites. They also as appropriate to the centre needs and interests
have efficient energy use and and its objectives.
waste disposal systems, use local Designing for variety and making


personal connections can The detailed principles and management trends in higher
encourage visitors to find ways to suggesti ons for good pr actice density tourism environments
match the interpretation with reviewed in the preceding will be followed in newer
their needs and interests (Blahna discussion can be developed into a destinations and recent trends in
& Roggenbuck, 1979; regional self-assessment system attraction management in
Christiansen, 1994). for tourism managers. Such a regional parts of Asia reinforce
procedure could involve the this theme of imitation (Lew, Yu,
The other major option available following steps. Identify and Ap & Guangrui, 2003; Teo,
is to use layering in the consider each of the important Chang, & Ho, 2001). A third force
interpretive displays. Layering market segments using the shaping the potential develop-
means having several levels of centre. This could be senior self- ment or enhancement of visitor
detail within each topic, panel or drive travellers or the local school centres is directly from the visitor
display area. The panels or children. Next identify the – many of the studies already
layers might promote new actions relative importance of the Four cited in this paper report high
or suggest the time needed to Plus functions for this market. satisfaction from visitors who use
participate. A core message For seniors, for example, the such facilities. As the number of
(related to the theme) is the first promotion function may be most visitors who have experienced
layer and visitors with limited important, say 60%, but the such centres in well developed
time and interest can easily substitution function may also be settings increases, and further as
browse the display picking up of interest (25%). Then consider they begin to travel more in
only these messages. A second how well the full array of centre regional areas, it is likely that the
layer which expands on this core facilities from access to signage, demand for such facilities will
message can then be added for to text and interpretive activities also grow.
visitors with higher levels of meets these functions for this
interest and/or more time. A market. A systematic appraisal The research to inform better
third layer of quite detailed for all mark ets using these practice and the smart use of
information is also often included functions may identify important resources in visitor centre needs
and visitors with special interests gaps for refurbishment or to grow as visitor centres grow.
can access these. The key is to management action. The Several kinds of research effort
remember that layers should offer particular value of the Four Plus can be envisaged. A topic of
more detail, not more difficulty model in this context is that it leading concern is the docu-
(Mack & Thompson, 1991). explicitly recognises that a centre mentation of the effectiveness of
cannot be all things to all people processes to link communities to
Management and but that its performance is linked their visitor centres (cf. Simpson,
maintenance to a well defined set of priorities 2001). What kinds of cooperative
and functions for specific planning inputs produce mutually
A final but enduring challenge in markets. satisfactory outcomes? Both
visitor centre functioning is the success stories and accounts of
management of the facility, Further considerations for conflict could be described in case
including both its staff and its regional tourism study research with the
physical condition. There are possibility that inductively
important and substantial human The core assumption underlying derived generalisations could
resource issues in managing staff, the previous discussion is that emerge in a grounded theory
creating rewards for volunteers visitor information centres are treatment of the examples.
and maintaining the services (c.f. likely to play an increasingly Alternatively more empirical
Deery & Iverson, 1996). A critical important r ole in regional treatment of community and
component of this management tourism. This statement can be stakeholder attitudes could be
includes securing budgets for substantiated in three ways. devised from within an existing
maintaining the quality and First, it appears that there are theoretical structure such as
appeal of the external and cohorts of travellers who are social representation theory
internal qualities of the facility as becoming more independent and (Pearce, Moscardo & Ross, 1996).
well as being able to renovate and more likely to seek direct In this approach stakeholders
repair damaged sections. Fur- personal contact opportunities could be asked to rate and assess
ther, training staff to maintain with their hosts and likely visitor centre functions and
high levels of attentiveness to environments (Poon, 2000). sp ecifics accord ing to such
customers is a consistent need in Visitor centres provide an principles as preferred roles,
all service sectors. In the visitor immediate, credible personal appearance and the treatment of
centre, marketing of the centre’s information source to support the topics. Such an approach would
services may also be needed to information seeking relevant to abandon the view that visitor
influence funding sources and independent and repeat travel centres are like pieces of art,
local political stakeholders behaviour (Fodness & Murphy, statements of creative achieve-
(Kandampully, 2002). 1999). Second , many of the ment for the architects and


replace this with the newer visitor centre behaviour and post-
appraisal that they are functional construction travel patterns and
community and visitor serving attitudes are missing. As visitor
buildings (Flanagan, 1996; centres age, there is undoubtedly
Grenier, Kaae, Miller & Mobley, a need for refurbishment.
1993). Assessments of refreshed centres
could be the source of productive
A range of more pragmatic yet research based advice.
regionally important research
assessments can also be The recommendations for visitor
suggested. Few studies report centre planning, management
how visitor centres work in and research made in this paper
concert and whether visitors are, hopefully, timely so that the
notice and or are annoyed by the construction and use of these
repetition of themes and uniquely tourist-o riented
information. Additionally, longi- facilities can fulfil their multiple
tudinal studies assessing pre- functions effectively.

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