July 10, 2014

SC welcome centers to get makeover as tourism agency takes over

The nine S.C. Welcome Centers soon will get a new look, after the state transferred control of the centers to Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism from the Department of Transportation on July 1. About $3.2 million will be redirected to the tourism department for the centers’ daily operations.

When travelers journey along Interstate 26 near Spartanburg headed to Columbia, Charleston, Hilton Head or elsewhere, they can stop by the Landrum welcome center for advice on how to make their trip better.

“Everybody needs a change of scenery, especially when you’ve been traveling,” said the center’s manager, Lisa Davis, who along with her five-person staff greets travelers.

The state’s nine aging welcome centers soon will have a new look, too, after the state budget transferred control of the centers to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism from the Department of Transportation on July 1. About $3.2 million will be redirected to the tourism department from transportation for the centers’ daily operations.

The tourism department also will be responsible for maintaining, renovating and replacing facilities at the welcome centers. Additional money will be given to Parks, Recreation and Tourism for renovations at the welcome centers, money that originally had been set aside to attract filmmakers to the state.

About $1 million of that money will be spent renovating the centers during this fiscal year, said Marion Edmonds, spokesman for tourism department.

Parks, Recreation and Tourism already had a presence in the welcome centers but now will have control them between the interstate on and off ramps.

The centers are popular for visitors traveling through the Palmetto State, where tourism is the No. 1 industry.

From July 2012 to July 2013, 1.2 million visitors were assisted by staff members at the welcome centers.

“Our visitors offset taxes for our residents every day of the year and ... the staff in the welcome centers are our very, very best ally in getting the visitor to the places that they’d like to see,” said Vicki Fletcher, executive director of the Pendleton District Commission, which promotes tourism in the Upstate.

Most of the facilities are near South Carolina’s borders, including Little River, the Fort Mill area, North Augusta, Blacksburg, Fair Play, Hardeeville and Dillon. Another welcome center is more inland, off I-95 in Santee.

The welcome centers, staffed by tourism department employees, include bathrooms and amenities that the state’s dozen rest areas also offer, but are separate from those facilities, which the Department of Transportation will continue to be operate.

‘Cozy, coffee-shop feel’

Davis, 50, has worked at the Landrum welcome center since 2000.

It last was updated about 1996 for the Atlanta Olympics, she said.

The Landrum center is one of the first scheduled to be renovated. The plans are still in an early phase and will require additional approval by the state, said tourism spokesman Edmonds.

The Landrum center will test some of the plans for technology, landscaping and renovations that later could be used at other centers, Edmonds said.

The center will have a more “cozy, coffee-shop feel,” Davis said, catering more toward technology-focused travelers.

“The easier it is for a guest to recharge their phone if they need to, the better experience that guest is going to have,” Davis said.

The Landrum renovations could be completed by December, Edmonds said.

Besides helping with lodging reservations, welcome center staff members also suggest sites to see along the way.

In the Spartanburg area, Davis said she recommends the Cowpens National Battlefield, and points out local fruit farms and restaurants.

She also suggests the outlet mall near the battlefield, an art museum and county history museum in Spartanburg, and Walnut Grove Plantation.

“What we’re trying to do is give them additional things that will make that trip even more memorable in the hopes that they’re going to love it so much they’re going to come back,” Davis said.

While travelers can use their GPS or Internet to get to destinations, some still want brochures or a story about a personal experience about a destination from welcome center staff, Davis said.

That interaction is vital to the tourism industry, said Rich Harrill, acting director of the University of South Carolina’s school of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

“Human touch will never go out of style when it comes to tourism and hospitality,” he said.

‘Put our best foot forward’

Welcome center staff also must pass a certification exam on S.C. history, geography, attractions, state parks, directions, traveler safety, lodging, customer service and economic impact.

Fletcher, whose Pendleton area organization receives money from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said she supports the tourism department having more control over the welcome centers.

“Those who have the most vested interest in making sure we put our best foot forward are the ones who are overseeing what that visitor sees,” she said.

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