New Visitors Center on plaza seeks to demystify Chautauqua

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Vanessa Weinert, marketing manger for the Chautauqua Institution, speaks to a group of community volunteers at the Visitor’s Center on Monday June 17, 2013. The new Visitor’s Center is next to the post office and is in the space where publications was located in.

With a primary mission to welcome, assist, educate and demystify Chautauqua for the one-third of seasonal visitors who are on the grounds for the first time, the Institution has opened a new Visitors Center in the Post Office Building on Bestor Plaza.

George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer, said research with visitors revealed two main issues which the new Visitors Center is designed to address.

“First, we found there are far more first-time visitors — up to one-third of those on the grounds at any point in the season — than we thought,” he said. “Secondly, these visitors knew less than we thought about Chautauqua. We felt we had to do more to assist them.”

The new center, in a prime location on the grounds, will offer a large information desk with salaried and volunteer support staff and accommodations services.

“Using flashlights at night on the grounds and the availability of two 18-hole golf courses just across the road are two of the many bits of information visitors this summer will not miss,” Murphy said. “Then there’s the whole matter of the weekly schedule, which can involve 250 different events and can understandably be quite overwhelming to newcomers.”

Institution marketing manager Vanessa Weinert, who played a key role in developing the new center, said that data and surveys further showed that at least 50 percent of Athenaeum Hotel guests are new to the hotel.

“This underscored, for us, the need to make new and frequent visitors alike feel comfortable here and feel that Chautauqua is theirs,” she said.

The Main Gate Welcome Center will remain the Institution’s principal ticketing hub, but visitors can purchase tickets for specific opera, theater and amphitheater events at the Visitors Center.

“While the Main Gate is the point of entry,” Weinert said, “visitors typically don’t linger there and plan details for their stay in Chautauqua. The Visitors Center is for after you unpack and start to navigate the planning process in greater detail.”

The Visitors Center will feature permanent displays on the history of the Institution and a media center illustrating various aspects of life on the grounds. The 2,000-square-foot center represents a commitment of roughly $200,000 by the Institution to improve the Chautauqua experience.

The new center will be staffed by a mixture of gate staff employees and members of the community volunteer program, which was successfully launched last season. The facility will be open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., during the summer season. Experienced gate staff personnel will be present throughout the week. Community volunteers will sign up to assist in the center from noon to 2 p.m. daily. Myra Peterson, Institution accommodations concierge, will be in the center Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the summer season.

The establishment of the center set off a domino effect of off-season moves; the previous tenants, Chautauqua’s print shop, moved to the old police department offices behind the Colonnade, and the police moved to their new space in the fire hall on Massey Avenue.