A visitor center at The Breakers is not the right solution
I recently moved to Boston and I finally visited The Breakers in Newport. I have lived in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and have seen historic sites around the world. I was very concerned to hear a visitor center is proposed to be built inside the gate. The justification for the center is to “modernize hospitality” by providing food to prevent visitors from leaving the grounds and increase visitation at other Preservation Society of Newport County mansions. As a professional in tourism, I would like to offer some insights.
Operations: It appears the underlying reason to build the center is to service corporate groups. These groups visit briefly only one time and should not be the target market for the Preservation Society. Those who eat will monopolize parking spaces, which was the argument for not locating in the parking lot. Deterring guests from going into town will harm small businesses that rely on tourists. A nonprofit should not be competing for all of the local tourism business in Newport. The cost to operate the center and future renovations is probably higher than the likely return.
Tourist motivators: Imagine going the Palace of Versailles but instead you are greeted with a McDonald's in the middle of the gardens. The needs and expectations of guests are vastly different at a tourist vacation resort than a historic site. Visitors come to The Breakers for an “authentic historic experience.” Guests will visit multiple times a year to see beautiful gardens, maybe the mansions, but surely not a visitor center.
Marketing: The brochure at the ticket desk only included pictures of the main attractions. If guests automatically go to The Breakers, the less-frequented sites should be featured in marketing material to increase visitation. There is no need to have a visitor center to market other mansions. Standing posters and brochures can be added at the exit, the ticket booth and the gift shop cashier.
Interpretation and experience: Guests will share their experiences if they engage in activities, learn history and feel immersed in a historic period. The current tour structure was very rigid and offers no active engagement for interpretation. My thesis research consisted of a comparative analysis of different tour experiences, and determined when a tour offers no active engagement, guests are less likely to have a delightful experience, return and refer others.
Conclusion: A business plan should be developed to enhance the gardens and change the marketing strategy and tour structure to enrich the experience. I will gladly volunteer by providing alternative suggestions to preserve The Breakers because the visitor center is not the right solution.
Charity Richins, Boston The writer is a tourism industry professional with bachelor's and master's degrees in parks, recreation and tourism.