San Francisco revamps visitor center

By Michelle Baran
San Francisco visitor centerSAN FRANCISCO — While many destination marketing organizations are having to make do with less in a post-recession world of tighter budgets and eroding public funds, San Francisco Travel recently found itself with an influx of cash.

It invested nearly $1 million in completely revamping the city’s visitor information center.

“Four years ago, we made a significant shift in our funding model,” said Matt Stiker, San Francisco Travel’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “Over time, the funding we were getting from the city, which amounted to about two-thirds of our total budget, was increasingly variable. We never knew how much it would be from year to year. And secondarily, it seemed to always be in decline.”

Sitting at one of the computer portals in the newly reopened visitor center, located on Market Street at the mouth of the Powell Street Bart station, Stiker explained how San Francisco Travel obtained the resources for the center’s renovation.

In 2009, as city funding was dwindling, the city’s hotels joined forces to change the budget scheme for San Francisco Travel by creating a separate assessment added to each hotel bill of between 1% and 1.5% of the total bill.

Those funds are collected by the city and then administered by a tourism improvement district foundation. That money now makes up about two-thirds of San Francisco Travel’s funding.

“Our budget increased by 50%,” said Stiker. “All of a sudden we had some dollars that we could leverage.”

San Francisco Travel transformed its 4,000-square-foot visitor center, which originally opened in 1976 and for which it pays the city annual rent of $1, into a more interactive space modeled after an Apple store, according to Stiker, which is fitting for the tech industry-dominated Bay Area.

The staff are now more easily accessible from counter areas, which were moved from the back of the space to the middle. Brochures representing some of the destination’s 1,500 tour operator, hotel, restaurant, sightseeing and other partners have been relocated from the middle of the space to its walls, giving the area a more open feel.

Visitors can check email and print out boarding passes at two computer stations, and the center is equipped with free WiFi. There is also a pop-up store from SFMade, stocked with souvenirs and gifts from local San Francisco companies.

After getting advice and information on what to see, do, eat and drink in and around the city, visitors can purchase transportation and attraction passes as well as numerous other tourism products.

The mission of the center, and of San Francisco Travel overall, is to get people to do more, stay longer and spend more, Stiker explained. The larger aim, of course, is to continue to increase the economic impact of tourism for the city.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.
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