Long before there was such a thing as Internet, I made it a practice to always stop by the local tourist office every time I arrived at a new destination. Whether Innsbruck, Kyoto or Omaha, I always dropped by to pick up a map and brochures and to pick the brains of the people who worked or volunteered there. Now, of course, you can find almost anything on your phone, but I still like looking at a map to see the big picture. Furthermore, as a recent drive from Kansas to Florida proved, state welcome centers have gone beyond simply handing out maps. In fact, many have become destinations in themselves.
Florida, for example, offers free citrus juice along with many regional pamphlets at its five welcome centers, while Alabama’s eight tourist offices also offer a room reservation service.
But it’s the Arkansas Welcome Center located in Blytheville on I-55 that impressed me
the most. While I admittedly haven’t been to all the many tourist information centers that dot the nation, this Arkansas showpiece not only had free coffee and WiFi but was so welcoming that I actually wanted to hang out there as a welcome break from driving. Decorated for Christmas, it had a real roaring fire in the fireplace, rocking chairs and a children’s play area. More than 1,000 brochures, pamphlets and publications representing federal, state, city, regional and private entities promoted restaurants, lodging, parks, attractions and much more. The friendly staff told us they had decorated for Christmas themselves.
Turns out, there are 13 welcome centers in Arkansas (compared to, say, only two in Kansas), staffed by 46 full-time employees. To ensure that staff are knowledgeable, the state organizes two familiarization tours each year to different parts of the state to keep everyone up to date, makes sure staff are CPR/First Aid certified, and requires that all its welcome center employees pass a Travel Consultant Certification exam covering everything from geography and history to culture and attractions.
So while you can check TripAdvisor to see people’s comments, who may or may not be seasoned travelers, you should also take advantage of travel professionals waiting just for you in state welcome centers. You never know just where they might lead you.