A Tale of Two Visitor Centers

Yes, the internet has changed how many of us gather our travel intelligence — but this tale is about walking into one of those Welcome to our City buildings; filled with brochures and maps, factoids and gifts, and information dispensed by local human beings. In my opinion, there is nothing like a good visitor center.

Omaha, Nebraska and Natchez, Mississippi are river towns. They are similar and different. The population of Natchez is about 15,000. Omaha’s is approximately 395,000 greater.

This is a story of visiting their visitor centers.

First impressions can be affected by a simple greeting, an accessible location, what time of day or year you visit, how long you stay, etc. Imagine you are a visitor unfamiliar with an area and stopped by after exiting the main road. Let the impressions begin…

Natchez receives significant seasonal groups of visitors when riverboats drop tourists at their door. The dock is not far from their visitor center.

Omaha receives seasonal tourists too but spread out over annual events. Why not put your visitor center where those events are held or maybe near a gateway into town like the road from the airport or say closer to the river?  Somewhere, anywhere – more visible.

PARKING is any visitor center’s first – first impression. The Natchez Reception Center has a large lot with free spaces for cars, buses, and RVs.

In Omaha, there is minimal parking—on the street at meters with 15 minute parking signs. Remember, I’m a visitor and just pulled in. I haven’t looked at the website to see your note about “…parking along 10th Street.” I see meters and a sign which says I only have 15 minutes.

RESTROOMS are the most “visited” space at a visitor center. At Natchez, restrooms are conveniently located in the front of the building — separate to the actual visitor center. And incredibly – OPEN 24 hours!

HISTORY is another big attraction to any city. Natchez had 120 years or so start on Omaha and was at the intersection of many historical events. Omaha has history too. Native Americans, pioneers, railroads, jazz, and as a witness to Lewis & Clark. Yes, there are awesome history museums in Omaha – and Nebraska – but tease me about them at your visitor center (alternatively to but augmented by the brochures).

At the Natchez Reception Center, you are forced to walk through rich, historical exhibits – to get to their Gift Shop! The wall of windows is wonderful, offering natural light in and a panoramic view of the river valley out.

At Natchez I was offered free coffee as I chatted with a staff member and complimented her on the visitor center. I work in the film industry and ask a question at every visitor center. “Can you tell me if any movies have been shot here?” Without hesitation, she presented a list. She rattled off recent projects, told me about stars and crew who stayed in town, and pointed out that parts of the series True Blood were shot at an antebellum home nearby. She then segued to how many antebellum homes and B & Bs are there. “Most do tours. Here’s that list.”

Yes, I was impressed by my short visit to the Natchez Reception Center but couldn’t help thinking about the similarities to Omaha – because I live in Omaha. I am one of those locals who utilize the visitor center for family visiting and business associates on their way here. In the past I’ve gathered gift bags for arriving visitors and purchased Omaha gifts to give to my family on the east coast. I worked on the movie Up in the Air and was close to the decision to NOT SHOOT George Clooney at the Omaha Visitors Center. It almost happened.

I returned to Omaha eager to revisit the Omaha Visitors Center. A friend who works for the city had told me, “The administration offices of tourism moved but the visitors center is still open.” Oh. I was more excited. Maybe changes are coming. Is something new happening?

After I paid for parking, I was met by a sign directing me around the corner. I peeked through the window and the front space was – vacant?

Once inside, I was shocked. They’ve made it smaller! By the way – there is no gift shop in the Omaha Visitors Center. The trinkets were removed a few years ago, about the same time the cafe went away.

I was greeted by a cordial volunteer and announced myself as a local but curious about new visitor offerings. I also wanted to learn what the heck was going on with the construction – but I needed to use the restroom. I knew where it is but visitors have to ask, “Restroom?” I was shocked again. Now you need the restroom door to be unlocked by a volunteer with the key! A tad uncomfortable, I was guided by the gentleman far enough that he turned on the Men’s room light. I wondered if a female volunteer is assigned as a Ladies room guide.  Sigh.

I gathered a few brochures and left. Seeing the new Omaha Visitors Center was disheartening, especially after visiting Natchez’s weeks prior.

Omaha is a growing city, often found on those positive lists— Best City for this and Most Popular for that… It certainly feels like Omaha wants to be bigger and attract more visitors. There’s a new grand-scale development project in progress, encompassing two parks and areas along the river. The initial budget is 290 million dollars. Near here, another 100 million is slated for the initial phase of a Conagra campus repurpose. Why not have a bigger, better, more visible Visitor Center — located within these new projects?

I love a good visitor center—and I love my city. I simply want Omaha to have the best one. Traveling, hosting, or planning a visit is indeed subjective but consider a stop at a local visitor center on your next journey. A good one is friendly, informative, and memorable. Talk to the locals, learn their history, and take their recommendations.

Support your local visitor center too.  Come Visit Omaha   Go Visit Natchez

Thank you for visiting.

___________________________

I was in Natchez, MS for about two hours in November 2018. Forty minutes were spent at the Visitor Reception Center.

I revisited the Omaha Visitors Center in December 2018  and in January 2019.

The photos of Omaha parks above will become obsolete when construction is complete.

Words and photos copyrighted Jamie Vesay. Permission to reprint in online publications is required. Please ask.

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