The New Reality of Welcoming Visitors


By Laurie Paolicelli

Family activities remain a request among visitors. (Photo courtesy of UPROAR summer 2023 event.)

He was from the Netherlands, teaching at UNC for the summer. He didn’t have local friends, extra money, or any idea about Chapel Hill or Orange County. When he saw the sign that said Welcome Center he walked in and asked us what we did.

“We help people understand and enjoy Chapel Hill, Carrboro — all of Orange County. We give directions, share information and resources, and help to anyone who needs it.” That’s pretty much the job description for a Welcome Center.

“Do I have to pay?”

“It’s free,” we assured him. The Visitors Center is a benefit paid for by overnight hotel guests paying an accommodations tax used to help build the economy through tourism and travel. This “tax” is really an investment in the town: the nicer things are here the chances increase that tourists will return, play, spend and leave. And they leave nearly a quarter billion dollars a year in Orange County.

But back to our friend. “I use a bicycle in the Netherlands and I’m struggling to buy an old but reliable one here.”

A member of our staff said, “We will ask around. Come back tomorrow.”

Here’s the thing: even though we all have a cell phone, apps, GPS, people want people to help them. They want to know where to find a used bike, how to work the parking meters, where they can nurse their baby and find a place for their sophomore to live this academic year. They want someone they can share their frustrations with – traffic! construction! – and where can they find those great hamburgers someone was talking about.

Sometimes visitors just need a please to take a break.

Oh, and the Dutch professor who needed a bike. We found him a loaner and at summer’s end he left forever grateful.

The Welcome Center isn’t ever exceptionally crowded. We pay rent for prime real estate on one of the most expensive streets in our state. Occasionally residents wonder if we’re necessary at all.

The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Tourists pay for the Welcome Center. No general funds or property taxes are used. It’s a beautiful, well-maintained property that keeps its lights on at night and serves as a lighthouse for all the lost souls navigating the sea of this booming college town area. Orange County leaders are proud of this service.

App State fans and all fans of the visiting team love seeing their flag fly.

Here are some facts you might find fascinating:

  • 2.5 million annual visitors converge on Orange County each year. Most are from the Atlantic Coast, Washington DC to Atlanta, and most of them drive.
  • The Welcome Center has seen a spike in California and Florida residents looking for relocation information. Many cite rising insurance costs for hurricanes, floods, and fires.
  • We always fly the other team’s flag on game days (um, except Duke). This a hugely popular with visitors. They quite literally “text home” about it.
  • Visitors want restaurant suggestions and directions to walking paths and wide-open spaces. Most surprising fact? They want a street map, the old-fashioned kind.
  • Almost all visitors to the Welcome Center at 308 W. Franklin Street are older, not students. The students are in very good hands with the UNC Visitors Center.

Complaints we get:

  • No matter how hard we try, visitors find our way-finding signage confusing.
  • We do not offer enough amenities for families of all ages. Ours is an area geared towards young adults and adults. But with more families moving here and more relatives visiting their families, they want a two- or three-day itinerary of what they can do with young children. This usually involves sending them to Durham and Wake Counties.
  • Mondays are challenging. Most visitor attractions and restaurants are closed. Thankfully, the Carolina Basketball Museum and much of Carrboro remains open.
  • The Visitors Bureau staff is not able to fulfill the many requests we receive to bring sports events to Orange County. This ranges from high school events, racquet sports, to senior Olympics and baseball. Orange County simply does not have the available fields, courts and facilities. When Wrexham and Chelsea played soccer at Kenan, it took many years and many dollars to make happen.
  • Business and event planners who bring people to town are now demanding empirical proof of how we support efforts to lessen carbon impact and increase inclusivity.

Orange County does not have enough sports facilities to accommodate requests from those who to bring tournaments to the area. (Photo courtesy of NC High School Athletics Association.)

It may come as a surprise, but the Visitors Bureau staff does not receive many complaints about the homeless or panhandling. Maybe because homelessness is a world problem, not an Orange County problem; maybe our visitors are simply compassionate. When asked our staff refers people to The Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection (SOHRAD) program, at 919-886-3351.

Guided Tours are a top request received by Visitors Bureau staff.

All this is to say that tourism is an important contributor to the quality of life to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the Visitors Center is a lynchpin to encouraging and supporting the services necessary to maintain it. We are a friendly community through and through, but sometimes the Visitors Center is the first friendly face many a tourist will see. And as they say: you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Machelle Baker Sanders, North Carolina’s Commerce Secretary with Wit Tuttel, VP, Tourism for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina; Executive Director of Visit NC acknowledge Orange County’s growth in tourism.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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