A visit to the Teton Mountains, whether in Idaho or Wyoming, is a visit to remember, especially along U.S. Highway 191 from Jackson Hole, Wyoming into Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). Look to the west and there are the snow-capped mountains, to the east the Snake River meanders along the highway, all around are meadows and forests with elk and deer. Visual delights are everywhere. I wish I could be as delighted about the “Welcome” experience at this park and its visitors’ center.
Here are the things EID designs into a “Welcome”, that we also highlighted in “A Tale of Two Welcomes - Part 1”, and that I look for when visiting a preservation, collection, or historic recognition site:
· Friendly greeting
· Low anxiety
· Comfortable surroundings
· A whiff of mission and essence(s)
· Encouragement to do more
The fee station for GTNP is located approximately 10 miles inside the park and during my visit a friendly ranger said good morning, took my fee, handed me a map, wished me a good day, and focused on the next vehicle. To be perfectly honest, my memory of this encounter is a bit fuzzy. I have no unpleasant memories but no good first impressions either. I was not encouraged to do more nor was there a whiff of mission or essence(s) – a typical institutional greeting.
I’m not sure how friendly I would be if stuck in a booth all day greeting the 3.4 million visitors to GTNP, but what if the exchange with the ranger provided more information so I had a better sense of place and felt more welcomed. Maybe a few concise statements like…
“Good morning. Welcome to some of America’s youngest mountains. Anything in particular you wanted to see today?”
“Hello, glad you came today. In a few million years this entire valley might be a big sink hole, so glad you got here before that happened.”
“Good morning. Did you spot any wildlife on the drive up here? I saw a few on my drive in today. You might spot some deer, elk, and maybe even a wolf or two today.”
“Good afternoon. Hope you are ready to experience North America’s fastest growing mountain range. Hang on for the ride!”
With the fee collection and map hand-out done the ranger could then encourage a few experiences…
“There’s a ranger presentation every hour today.”
“Lots of hummingbirds around the visitors’ center feeder.”
“Great day for a walk along the Murie Ranch Trail that starts at the visitors’ center.”
“Stick around for some great mountain rain showers later in the day.”
“If you like water experiences try one of the boat rides on Jenny Lake.”
Will these greetings slow the process at the fee station? Probably. Will the folks in the car feel more welcomed and have a better sense of place? I think so. This kind of friendly greeting, plus a whiff of essence(s) and mission, combined with the encouragement to do more can only help visitors feel more connected to a site, rather than disconnected from the experience.
A short distance from the fee station a sign indicated where to turn for the visitors’ center. Once parked and out of my car, I had no idea where to go – high anxiety. Although this spills over into the Dance Step of “Orientation”, not a single directional sign could be found – not for trailheads, buildings, bathrooms…nothing. I felt totally on my own to figure things out. Finally, I followed a small group heading “that way” and eventually found the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center. A few signs would really help – even if only an arrow with the words “Visitors’ Center”. But there could be encouragement to do more on a sign or two…
“Just Ahead the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center – a beautiful beginning to the Tetons.” (with a picture of the building)
“Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center and Murie Trail this way.”
“Ranger Presentations (arrow)”
Built in 2007, the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center is a 22,000 sq. ft. structure made of wood with large glass windows. The center provides panoramic mountain views and receives over 400,000 visitors each year. Designed to simulate a ranch house, the building has a larger than life/monument feel to it. The view of the Tetons over the top of the building is spectacular with the roof line jutting up and down like the mountains. The center’s courtyard, which leads to the entrance, was virtually empty. A few people sat under the covered walkways in the shade.
The dominant feature in the courtyard is a very large patio of pavers and two large rocks. This area is devoid of any life or warmth except sunshine. It’s all a bit odd and not very welcoming – stark, not welcoming or comfortable surroundings. Marked only by a small A-frame sign hidden in the shade, the entrance is difficult to locate – medium anxiety.
How nice it would be if a ranger or two greeted visitors as they entered the courtyard. Questions regarding bathrooms, trails, food, the park, what’s inside the visitors’ center, and even where’s the entrance could be answered. That large courtyard patio with pavers -- how about making it a bit more attractive and welcoming with some tables with umbrellas and chairs where folks could sit and socialize. A few large pots with native flowers growing in them would add a nice touch. Why not add a cart that serves beverages and maybe a stand with local snacks for the hungry? A friendly greeting and comfortable surroundings are sorely needed.
The contrast between the isolation of the outside and the noise and bustle on the inside was jarring. High ceilings, folks milling around, and a large open space required me, once again, to figure out where to go - more anxiety and no comfort. I walked over to a counter manned by two rangers who were helpful but seemed rushed – a courteous greeting. Off to one side was a large gift store with the usual array of t-shirts and memorabilia and people. On the other side were interpretive displays that described the role of nature and humans in the area – no comfortable surroundings; nothing specific to encourage me to do more; a slight whiff of essences.
Everything was larger than life and there were no comfortable sitting areas. Examples of the pieces of life in the area dominated the displays; messages about the area’s essences or processes were not as prominent.
After a couple of walks around the exhibit space I decided to enjoy the outdoors.
As for the five criteria for “Welcome” at Grand Teton National Park:
· Friendly greeting – nothing memorable at fee station or the visitors’ center entrances.
· Low anxiety – lots of anxiety points - the car park, locating the center and entrance, and what to do.
· Comfortable surroundings – Lots of beautiful views outdoors and through windows, a few benches under the shaded walkway along the courtyard; no comfortable spaces for sitting, socializing, or reflecting.
· A whiff of mission and essence(s) – nothing in the “Welcome” at the fee station or the visitors’ center prepared me for essence(s) or mission…I “danced” on my own through the interpretive area.
· Encouragement to do more – none in the welcome or any signage.
I know National Parks Service employees are hard-working, underpaid, dedicated and often taken for granted. The parks are often filled to capacity and beyond, and, in the U.S.A., woefully underfunded. Still, we, as Interpretive Designers working with our public jewels and the general public, cannot ignore the power of that first impression in a “Welcome”.
A “Welcome” needs to make me feel a part of something, not isolated and left to figure out everything by myself. The “Welcome” should draw me in, want me to continue, and then encourage me to return for more. Once a visitor feels they are not getting what is needed to proceed, they are less likely to engage with the site and/or the center, and more likely only to return for the views.