Factors for Visitor Centre Design Effectiveness

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4th Jul 2018 Tourism Reference this


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An investigation and analysis of visitor centres and their use with regard to interpretation.

Visitor centres are an important component of attractions or sites. Indeed, their purpose is manifold, ranging from information referencing to travel advisement. Architectural design is also a distinguishing visitor centre feature. Designs range from the traditional to the nuance. Discussed here is a comparative visitor centre analysis based on three general themes: i) General Purposes, ii) Design and iii) Information: A How to Guide.

General Purposes

The primary role of a visitor centre is to convey information regarding a specific or grouped set of attractions within a defined geographical area to a continual visitor stream. In this sense, visitor centres are designed to act as reference guides both through directions and information sourcing to those interested in a particular site or attraction (England 2005, Florence 2006, Petrilli 2004). An analysis of visitor centres both within the UK and around the world reveals that information is presented in myriad fashion based on general site theme.

Several secondary roles are also associated with visitor centres. For example, visitor centres may act as a shelter and hospitality (however limited) provider (Wright 2004[1]). These roles may be especially prevalent among outdoor and/or geographically remote centres relative to more urban-set counterparts. Another secondary visitor function may involve travel advisement (Rompf et al. 2005). For example, visitor centres of specific towns or cities may offer services such as road-maps sales, hotel and restaurant directories and weather advisories. These functions exist to minimize the time and financial effort expended by an individual who possesses specific queries regarding personal travel plans. It is important to note that regardless of specific function performed by a given visitor centre, each serves to provide primary informative or logistical services with time and cost-efficiency to individuals.


There are several elements that contribute to visitor centre design effectiveness. These elements include primary structural design, accessibility and invasiveness.

It should be noted that within certain categories there are several variations. For example, primary structural designs may consist of simple, traditional enclosures or complex, nuance architecture. Evaluation of design effectiveness is based not on preconceived notions simply of what is good vs. what is bad, but rather overall appropriateness relative to primary mission of the visitor centre.

Discussed below are examples of high vs. poor quality visitor centres. Under each heading, primary examples are listed and discussed. Each example is discussed relative to the main criteria within the design realm (i.e. structural effectiveness, accessibility and invasiveness) that characterizes a visitor centre.

  1. High Quality Designs
    1. Sydney Visitor Centres, Sydney, Australia

Structural designs of the Sydney visitor centres are large and open (see visitor centre, The Rocks, right). The Sydney Visitor Centres are situated in the downtown precinct. Accessibility is excellent given proximity to commercial, 0entertainment and transportation hubs (i.e. Circular Quay). Also, the centers are well marked to the public. For example, the visitor centre situated in The Rocks (see right) is marked with a large yellow pillar denoting the information symbol. The degree of invasiveness is minimal because the centres exist within already developed commercial areas.

  1. Poor Quality Designs
    1. Stonehenge Visitor Centre, England

The Stonehenge Visitor Centre designs are sound in structure, but poor in accessibility and invasiveness. For example, early renditions of the visitors centre reflect its use as a modern facility wherein visitors can become engaged in Stonehenge’s historical significance. However, a new visitor centre demands motor-based transportation between the centre and Stonehenge monument itself (BBC Online). Critics assert the environmental damage sustained with building of new road infrastructure to facilitate such transfers (BBC Online). Also, the centre is placed such that traffic is bottlenecked along a major interstate motorway (BBC Online).

Information: A How to Guide

Information presented within a visitor centre is critical to the user’s overall experience and satisfaction. There are three primary elements of information presentation that act not in mutual exclusivity, but in coordination to provide a comprehensive learning experience for a given individual. The first element is information accuracy. Information must be presented with high accuracy to must lucidly inform individuals of what and why a certain site bears historical, cultural or economic significance. The second element is presentation style. Critical to this element is a balance between detail and restrain. Information is most effectively presented if it enables satisfaction among users of a variety of ages, intelligence and general interest levels. The final element involves integration. This refers to the ability to present various different information pieces (i.e. historical accounts, vegetation descriptions[2], maps etc) in context of the site’s general theme or purpose. For example, the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, US, hosts an exhibit entitled “The World Ahead” (CDC 2003). The exhibit incorporates several presentations dealing with real, modern risks and threats to global health such as bioterrorism and infectious disease (CDC 2003). Information integration is highly effective as the exhibit exists on the premises of one of the most advanced health laboratories in the world.

Discussed below are two examples of visitor centres that convey information with high effectiveness. Each example is discussed relative to main criteria within the information realm (i.e. information accuracy, presentation style and integration) that characterizes a visitor centre. As well, visitor centres are examined based on inclusion of essential issues – who, what, where, when, why and how – related to a specific site.

  1. Sydney Visitor Centres, Information Services

Consider this example that uses a template for information services offered by the Sydney Visitor Centres Online. The following is an exert taken from Sydney Visitor Centres Online website (Information Services, http://www.sydneyvisitorcentre.com/content/dyncontent.cfm?pg=100360) that explains the range of services available within or facilitated by each of its two downtown visitor centres:

“Sydney Visitor Centres offer a comprehensive information service, which includes:

  • Conveniently located centres at The Rocks (9.30am- 5.30pm) and Darling Harbour (9.30am- 5.30pm) open every day of the year except Christmas Day and Good Friday
  • Expert Visitor Services Advisers many of whom are multi-lingual
  • Free information brochures and tourist guides < purchase for available are − explore to areas regional major including Australia and surrounds, its Sydney, of maps range extensive>
  • A real-time Booking Service for accommodation, day tours, cruises and other activities in and around Sydney
  • Exclusive souvenirs and gifts, postcards, phone cards, travel cards, tickets and passes for purchase” (Information Services, Sydney Visitors Centres 2006)

Consider this outline of information services in the context of satisfying the essential criteria behind any marketing piece – answering the Who, What, Where, Why, When and How regarding the visitor centres and their services. First, the ‘who’ is clearly outlined in the heading, avoiding confusion among individuals as to who to consult vis-à-vis Sydney attractions and sites. The ‘what’ is explained in terms of each service offered by the visitor centres (i.e. service advisers, booking services, amenities such as phone cards, tickets etc).

  1. Heritage and Leisure, Cork, Ireland

Information and links distributed through the Heritage and Leisure Department of Cork City council highlights the city’s most famous attractions. For example, links are provided to the Cork Museum, Blarney Castle and Cobh Heritage Centre, each of which possesses a unique significance to Irish culture and history (Cork City Council 2006). The Cobh Centre is particularly well advertised and explained as a sea-farers port, in past for Irish emigrants and in present for cruise liners (Cork City Council 2006). This centre also satisfies the essential information criteria regarding the subject of the site – ‘who’ (Cobh Heritage Centre), ‘what’ (past port for Irish emigrants), ‘where’ (Irish southeastern coast), ‘why’ (drought), ‘when’ (mid 19th to mid 20th century) and ‘how’ (via ship).


Visitor centres are most effective when blended into respective surroundings and when information is most aptly presented and explained based on site theme. Planners and contractors should heed such fundamental criteria such that future visitor centres accentuate, not dominate specific sites.


BBC Online Version. ‘Visitor Centre “Will Never Happen”’. Undated, Anonymous. Accessed online at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/stoned/countess.shtml>, April 17, 2006

CDC Hopes to Draw Crowds of Tourists to New Visitors Center. Anonymous. 2003. Physicians Financial News. 21(13): 25

Cork City Council, Ireland. 2006. Heritage and Leisure. Accessed online at http://www.corkcorp.ie/strategiccorkguide/our_city/heritage_and_leisure.shtml, April 16, 2006

England J. 2005. Historic Wood Used in Nature Preserve. Rocky Mountain Construction. 86(16): 42

Florence B. 2006. ‘Quill Lakes Prepares for Hordes of Spring Visitors’. StarPhoenix, 10 April, p. A3

Information Services, Sydney Visitors Centres. 2006. Accessed online at <http://www.sydneyvisitorcentre.com/content/dyncontent.cfm?pg=100360>, April 17, 2006

Petrilli PE. 2004. River of Life. Consulting-Specifying Engineer. 36(4): 48

Rompf P., DiPietro RB and P. Ricci. 2005. Locals’ Involvement in Travelers’ Informational Search and Venue Decision Strategies While at Destination. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing. 18(3): 11

Sydney Visitors Centres (SVC). 2006. Sydney Visitors Centres. Accessed online at <http://www.sydneyvisitorcentre.com/content/dyncontent.cfm?pg=100355>, April 17, 2006

Wright G. 2004. Capitol Visitor Centre Project Nears Halfway Mark. 2004. Building Design & Construction. 45(6): 7


[1] Note that the Capitol Visitor Centre in Washington, DC, holds a capacity of ~600 for dining events (Wright 2004)

[2] See Petrilli (2004) for description of Sandstone Visitor Centre, US, and connection to eco-friendliness

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