A Local Tourism Industry That Might Surprise You

During August, visitors to Orange County's Welcome Center in Chapel Hill, received free hats as a re-opening gift.


By Laurie Paolicelli

August marked a reopening of the Orange County Visitors Center, located at 501 W. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, and clearly, it has been missed. This is a cause for celebration.

As our team readied to open on a regular schedule again, we had many doubts as to how essential our presence would be.

After all, Orange County had been giving us some wiggle room deciding whether we should be open to the public or continue to work from home, where we’ve been doing some prospecting, marketing, and communicating with national audiences about new realities in our community, realities shared with the rest of the nation and, indeed, the world. The actual Visitors Center is a smaller part of the overall operations of a Visitors Bureau.

In the end, we determined that it felt right to open and assist our new visitors, regular guests who come back annually, or those locals who might want a little help in determining how to explore their own backyard since national travel has been curtailed in these times of COVID.

When September hit, we looked back at August and reviewed our daily visitor counts, which includes the visitor’s origin, visitor party count, their reason for visit, and other notes.

We thought you’d enjoy some of this insight. And yes, numbers are down and in part that’s because UNC has opened a brilliant and blue Visitors Center for student tours, parent information, and all things Tar Heels. Check them out at www.unc.edu/visitors.

Families that are relocating to the area want to know about K-12 schools.

Here are some of the questions from our visitors the center helped answer:

We just moved here from Wisconsin (or Oklahoma or Germany or New Jersey or Chicago) and we need help navigating this town. Can you help us? Folks from even Chatham County asked us the same question.

Help, I’m getting married (or going to school or getting a new job or relocating) and need some area maps.

We are here for a wedding (or a doctor’s appointment, or a haircut). We want to have some fun too, what do you suggest?

I moved here from Hawaii for law school (or business, or social work). I really need to get a sense of this place. Where can I eat, rent and run?

I’m from Alexandria, VA and I’m a traveling nurse. I’ve spent the last few weeks at the hospital in Hillsborough. Before I head home I want to do some shopping and get some photos. What’s open?

We are with Delta Airlines and our crew stays at Carolina Inn. I’m thinking about retiring here. Can you give me a sense of local neighborhoods?

We are from Kansas City (or New York City or Cary or Rochester) and visiting family. We want to walk every day and we are not sure where to start. Can you help us?

This from a man wearing a Scottish kilt: I’m here for a week while my wife visits her dad and I’d love to see any place with Scottish history. Can you help me learn more about Ayr Mount?

And this: Help! I have a crying baby who needs to be nursed. Can you point me to a quiet room that I can sit in for an hour while the rest of my family walks the campus?

The answer to all of these questions is, “Yes, for sure, we can help.”

A colorfully painted RAM reminds that all are welcome.

This is just a sampling, but it’s representative of the kind of help a Visitors Center can provide. So when people ask us, “Why do people visit your center?” it’s tough to answer. We get hundreds of requests for campus information and we have a strong partnership with UNC and we know where to send these folks. We get hundreds of requests for maps and luckily that’s easy. But the fun part is helping those who want to say they “did Chapel Hill,” but have no idea how to do it.

Most illuminating is how many people simply want to talk. We’ve had countless people spend close to an hour here, asking about neighborhoods, schools, hospitals. All that is unsurprising. What surprises us is the people who ask very specific questions: tax base, are we environmentally sensitive, what are the school districts like, will their child with autism get the resources they need, where should they grab dinner in Carrboro, and does our community accept transitioning teenagers?

We get questions about gluten-free choices, the best BBQ, public transit, and how to open a business here.

Our batting average is good and we answer most questions. But it’s more than just answering questions: it’s about offering reassurance. People want to be heard and seen. They want community and that’s why they come to ours. Our job is to welcome them. In these uncertain times, this can mean a lot.

So yes, we’re open. Come and see us. Locals and visitors, day trippers, those passing through, and those who want to “do Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough” and need some help. All are welcome here.

And, make a note. In December, we will be located in a new site: 308 W. Franklin Street, the former Cholonad and Trail Shop for those who have been around awhile. Same warmth, same welcome and, we can hope, a smile you can actually see.

Carrboro remains a top interest for relocaters.

Chapel Hill Orange County Visitors Bureau

The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau is a division of Orange County and is funded by a hotel tax left by visitors and collected by Orange County. http://orangecountync.gov/953/Board-of-County-Commissioners-BOCC

Current Hours:

Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. and Saturday’s during special events.


501 W. Franklin Street with parking in back of Bentley Building


Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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