“Welcome to ….” The mission of the Capital Region drop-in centers in Albany, Troy and Schenectady is evolving

In March 2020, days before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Irish American Heritage Museum moved from its old Broadway storefront home in Albany to Quackenbush Square.

“We were thinking about how we will continue to attract and bring these cultural heritage tourists to the city of Albany and it is an amazing area, it is a historic building,” said the mayor of Albany, Kathy Sheehan, at the time.

The New Home of the Irish American Museum was the former home of the Discover Albany Visitor Center, a museum spanning Albany’s 300-year history, covering many aspects of immigration, politics, slavery and trade. It had been there since the 1980s, the destination for school visits, retirees and the occasional out-of-town visitor who had time to kill and wanted to learn more about the city they were in.

When the Irish Museum moved in, the Visitor Center quietly moved to the western part of the building, a smaller space with only a fraction of what it once had on display.

Travel as a concept has evolved. A social network page can tell anyone about the sights to see in a new place and its history. In a world where information is available at the push of a button, what is the role of a reception center now?

“A drop-in center should point you in the direction of,” said John McEneny, former member of the state assembly and former city historian. “You have services there, you have proper bathrooms, maybe some light refreshments. And then you say, it sounds interesting. I would like to go see him.

“The purpose of a drop-in center is not to compete for resources,” McEneny continued, “it is to improve them. And to show people where they are and encourage them to go. (McEneny’s daughters Rachel and Maeve serve on the Discover Albany board of directors.)

According to Sheehan, Albany is the only municipality in the region to provide direct support to its drop-in center. The city provides money in addition to a hotel occupancy tax which also goes directly to the visitor center.

“We provided them with a lease worth over $ 60,000 per year, as well as $ 130,000 (in direct support),” Sheehan said. “And so when I became mayor, and we were facing a budget deficit, and we were really looking at every penny, I met Discover Albany at that time to figure out what the city is really getting for these 130 $ 000. “

Sheehan realized that much of the money was used to fund school programs, where students came to visit. However, she realized that a city like Albany had a number of museums and historic sites to visit, and she wanted people to visit them rather than letting them go after seeing the Visitor Center.

“We started this conversation at the reception center,” she said. “What do modern reception centers look like? Many of them now have kiosks and (are) small. They are not real museums in themselves. And the other problem was that the visitor center display has reached the end of its useful life. And so, it was either time to completely renovate it, for which there was no funding, or to think of a different model.

During the pandemic, the hotel occupancy tax – the centre’s main source of income – largely disappeared. This, according to Kathy Quandt, COO of Discover Albany, forced them to move most programs online, using their funds to create an app and launch virtual tours. Then they reopened a few months ago on a smaller scale.

Quandt said she and her team hope to continue public programming, especially with their walking tours that continued during the pandemic, as well as some school programming. She and her team are always committed to providing on-site service to visitors.

According to Shannon Licygiewiz, CEO of the Albany Capital Center, the role of a drop-in center is always huge and a great resource for organizations to partner with.

“They are like an arm extension of what we do,” Licygiewiz said. “They provide the visitor experience to everyone who comes to your destination whether you are local or not local, they have an amazing team that offers resources, tells you where to go for restaurants, can offer advice on a different space. to use outside of ours or to help you collectively with hotel rooms It is literally the most valuable service to have this kind of welcome center.

Other cities in the Capital Region are finding that, like Albany, traditional entry points for visitors are as much virtual as bricks and mortar.

“Our mission is to inspire visitors to discover and enjoy all that Schenectady has to offer,” said Todd Garofano, Executive Director of Discover Schenectady.

Garofano said there was an increased number of automated tourist services such as machines and kiosks placed around the county. These services are touch screens with interactive software that present event calendars and maps of the area.

“I think our roles have evolved,” he said. “I think they will continue to evolve.

Gina Gould, president of the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) at Schenectady, said she has shared a close relationship with Discover Schenectady during the three and a half years she has held her position.

“This is the place where everyone goes to find out what to do in the city,” said Gould. “And they advertised for us, they put together the whole package like ‘You can visit MiSci and you can visit the Empire State Aerospace Museum, and you can have lunch here.’ And it’s kind of like when they had a travel guide.

The Troy’s RiverSpark Visitor Center closed in 2010 due to the city’s non-payment of rent for the facility. Since then, the Trojan organizations have realized the need for a more evolved reception center.

“I think there may be a better approach to determining where these visitor service functions are most appropriate in each specific community,” said Starlyn D’Angelo, executive director of the Hart Cluett Museum in Troy. She noted that there were hundreds of museums in the state.

Gould said the quality and curation of an organization’s website is essential. “They have to be visually beautiful,” she said. “And they have to be created by people who understand how visitors visit these types of web pages.”

Sheehan said that in towns where visitor centers did not include museums, there is usually some sort of partnership with other cultural institutions, which she said Albany has a number of, such as Albany. Institute of History and Art, Ten Broeck Mansion, Schuyler Mansion and Cherry Hill.

“I really rely on the professionals at Discover Albany to bring this together and create experiences for people. This is really the role they play. And they have people who are very good at it and who work very hard at it. “

McEneny agrees with Sheehan. He thinks that just having a center and a museum where visitors enter for a brief history of the city in 30 minutes defeats the purpose of a visitor center. Its role is not the same as a museum, he said.

“It’s a very important distinction, you don’t need a specific role at the museum,” McEneny said. ” And it’s good. You have Irish museums or Italian museums which have a specific role. The visitor center is there to show you all the different resources that are there and you can enrich your visit.

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