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Mobile visitor center ‘like a food truck for information’
Lake Lanier CVB looks for ways to reach younger generations
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Stacey Dickson, center right, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Renee Carden, sales manager of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau, during a tour of the bureau's new mobile visitors center in Gainesville, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Years ago, lack of funding shelved plans for a $1 million visitors center in Hall County.

But since then, digital devices have replaced paper maps that were once the staple of such temples of traveler information.

And in the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau’s case, four rubber tires also play a major role.

The agency is getting ready to take its mobile visitors center on the road this year. Still absent are designs, including one of a vintage postcard, that will wrap the now all-white vehicle parked at the Hall County Government Center off Browns Bridge Road.

But otherwise, “we’re almost ready to take the show on the road,” CVB president Stacey Dickson said last week during a visit to the trailer. “This gives us a way to go where the people are, both locally and regionally.

“It’s like a food truck for information.”

Like its brick-and-mortar counterparts, the center — a 20-foot by 8-foot trailer that can be towed from event to event — still will house brochures and maps.

And officials plan to use some technology, such as an old-school View-Master where visitors click through pictures on a device held up to their eyes.

But to capture the younger set, including millennials, “we’re in the process of developing some 360-degree videos that people can view when they’re here and also online,” Dickson said. “And one of the features we’ll be adding is a charging station.”

“Trendwise, as far as generational marketing and who our customer is,” she added, “it’s been the (baby) boomer. But boomers are getting older now and their travel habits are changing. That Gen X to millennial (age group) is growing. There are more Gen Xers (those born 1961 to early 1980s) traveling than boomers.”

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Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau, shows off the bureau's new mobile visitors center in Gainesville, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
Dickson said: “We have to think about what they want to see and do, and the experiences they want to have.”

Gainesville native Ansley Rochester, a University of South Carolina freshman who’ll be working as an intern at the mobile center this summer, is looking forward to the experience. The public relations major will work on the social media and website aspects “to try to attract people closer to my age, but also, everyone.”

“I think (the center) is a great concept, especially for people my age,” Rochester said. “With phones and technology, it’s less likely they would drop by the brick-and-mortar centers.

“With all this access at our fingertips, we don’t necessarily go out of our way to look for information,” she added. “This (center) is a great way to put the (CVB) out there and make it more accessible to people.”

The bureau operated a stationary visitors center off Interstate 985, between Flowery Branch and Oakwood, during the 1996 Summer Olympics. It operated for several years afterward but later closed. With the building long gone, the Georgia Department of Transportation now uses the site for storage of salt and other snow-fighting materials.

Over the past 20 years, the county considered a visitors center as part of a special purpose local option tax. Funding was never there, but also the concern became “what should a visitor center look like now,” Dickson said.

“Is it really needed anymore?” she said. “Technology-based things, like developing the app and doing more things that way that got the message to people in a more mobile way was much more desirable.”

“A permanent brick-and-mortar center is not completely off the table, but we realize it must have a very compelling component, like an attraction, to make it work,” Dickson said.

The trend nationally “is closing the brick-and-mortar centers and going mobile in a variety of different ways,” she said. “We had an opportunity at the end of last fiscal year with a little bit of surplus and ... seeing (the mobile center) as something we might want to pursue.”

The visitors bureau, which has funding agreements with various governments, ended up spending $12,000 on the trailer.

The agency tested it out at a couple of events this past fall “to work the kinks out,” Dickson said. “Reception has been good. Once it’s wrapped and we’re out there (with) it, it’s going to be phenomenal.”

The vehicle can be used in a number of settings and venues, such as serving drinks and popcorn at outdoor movies.

“We’re working toward some licensing where we can have (alcohol) samples, like from Left Nut Brewery, at events where that’s appropriate,” Dickson said. “We’ll also have some retail merchandise — Lake Lanier T-shirts and hats — we can sell out of here eventually.”

Equipped with lights and an awning that will block visitors from the sun, the center could be at several major events throughout the year, such as the Petit LeMans road race.

“We’re building a calendar right now,” Dickson said. “One of the things we’re hoping to do is support the farmer’s market in Flowery Branch.”

Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew favors that idea and the South Hall city’s relationship with the visitors bureau in general.

“We are excited about working to further integrate the resources of the (CVB) into the events we are having,” he said. “Certainly, the Flowery Branch Farmers Market is one of our most important happenings.

“As we grow, the city is making an effort to better support and promote the events we have in Flowery Branch and the ... mobile visitors center will go a long way toward that goal.”

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