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Visitor Center Futures Work Group

What It Is

The Visitor Center Futures project is an opportunity to challenge our assumptions and reimagine how visitor centers can better meet visitor needs. The Visitor Center Futures workgroup is tasked to explore how to improve visitor experiences for modern needs and audiences, make fiscally sustainable decisions, and create functional space for employees and partners. It will create tools for parks, partners, and communities to realistically manage expectations about what a visitor center can or should be at any given site.

Why It Matters

Given that the existing planning and decision-making process for investing in the construction and renovation of built visitor center infrastructure in parks has not been systematically reviewed to ensure optimal outcomes from both a contemporary visitor experience and cost-benefit perspective, how might we help the National Park Service understand the principles, priorities, and decisions that will help the agency better invest in the future experience of parks?

Visitor Center Futures FAQs

What is the Visitor Center Futures Project?

The NPS has grown to more than 400 units and has amassed a portfolio of visitor centers that is growing and aging, with visitor centers that are often fiscally or operationally unsustainable over the long-term. The continual and ongoing costs of visitor centers to the agency result in millions of dollars spent annually, which compete with other priorities for operational capacity, facility costs and project dollars. The Investment Review Board (IRB) sponsored the formation of the Visitor Center Futures workgroup in December 2020 to challenge our assumptions and reimagine how visitor centers can better meet visitor needs. The Visitor Center Futures workgroup is tasked to explore how to improve visitor experiences for modern needs and audiences, make fiscally sustainable decisions, and create functional space for employees and partners. It will create tools for parks, partners, and communities to realistically manage expectations about what a visitor center can or should be at any given site.

The Visitor Center Futures project is one of several studies and initiatives related to facility investments and asset management undertaken by the NPS over the past three years including housing, campgrounds, and museum collections storage. These efforts have the primary goal of improving the understanding of the NPS asset portfolio and investment processes, aligning and articulating investment strategies, documenting needs, and generating pragmatic steps for efficiently planning and executing projects, and, most importantly, maintaining priority assets.

Is the Visitor Center Futures workgroup considering data availability and data collection challenges?

Yes. A subject matter expert workgroup of the core team was formed to focus specifically on data availability, use, trust, and integration into NPS planning and investment decision-making processes.

Is the Visitor Center Futures project considering partner needs and philanthropy?

​​​​​​​Absolutely. Partners are critical to NPS operations and visitor experiences, and help fund significant facility projects through philanthropy. All partnership types and the needs of these partners and more are being considered at multiple levels of this project. Partnership data is being analyzed. Partner involvement was an important theme throughout case study evaluation and partners will be a part of any solutions implemented.

Are visitor center projects on hold?

Visitor center projects are not on hold. Many visitor center projects are in all stages of progress, including presenting to the IRB and being approved.

In a memo from Mike Caldwell, Acting Associate Director for PPFL dated December 14, 2020, he states:​​​​​​​

Work on visitor center assets will continue across the system. More than 200 visitor center facility-related projects are underway or programmed over the next several fiscal years. Maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of visitor centers that are valued at $2M or less net construction will not be delayed. However, until VC Futures work is completed, the IRB will review visitor center projects exceeding a net construction of $2M only on an exception basis, and at the request by the Regional Director. Projects that have previously been approved at the conceptual design phase may proceed.

Will the Visitor Center Futures project lead to changes in the facility planning model?

Yes. The visitor center facility planning model will be updated to reflect the outcomes and recommendations currently developed by the Visitor Center Futures project. The Visitor Center Futures project is currently focused on the steps through which a park determines whether a structure is the best way to provide a particular experience or service (i.e., the steps leading up to the planning model).

What is Human-centered design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is a creative and strategic approach to solving challenging problems. The method puts people at the center of the process. It takes into account behaviors, ways of thinking, and peoples’ needs and aspirations. HCD integrates academic disciplines including anthropology, psychology, economics, and other practical and theoretical design disciplines. It is a qualitative, participatory and iterative approach. This technique for creative problem-solving rapidly generates new ideas and innovative approaches to better understand and address people’s real needs. The HCD approach can provide a sense of why people are struggling with a specific challenge or process and offer insights about how to innovate or intervene to bring about positive change. For more information, visit this page.

How can I participate in the Visitor Center Futures project as a pilot park?

Thank you for your interest in participating as a pilot park for the Visitor Center Futures project. Testing tools in a real-world environment will be invaluable to help us develop and refine tools that will help parks determine the most effective methods for delivery of essential visitor functions traditionally housed in visitor centers.

We are in the process of prototyping tools and guidance that we will pilot with parks over the coming months. Please fill out this form to express your interest in participating as a pilot park. At this point, we are interested in parks at any stage of the planning process, though we may narrow our scope before the prototypes are developed.

Update October 2021

Redesigning the process of decision-making and planning for park visitor centers.

 

Where We Are: Concept Development

 

The concept development phase in human-centered design research is the process of prioritizing and refining opportunities for building out specific concepts in order to prototype possible solutions.

Our goals during the concept development phase are:

  1. Prioritize opportunities for prototyping
  2. Refine opportunities for prototyping, keeping in mind feasibility and other constraints 
  3. Develop and iterate on drafts of tools and guidance for use with pilot parks

Recently Completed

 

  • Ideation workshops – Engaged Core Team in work sessions to develop potential ideas for prototyping
  • Ideation synthesis – Identified overarching themes from ideation sessions with Core Team.
  • Executive Sponsor briefing and workshop – Shared and discussed themes for design opportunities.
  • Open hour discussions on design themes – Series of five discussions with Core Team members and Subject Matter Experts to discuss themes for design ideas, develop additional ideas and identify constraints.

Current Activities

 

  • Continued Core Team and Subject Matter Expert discussions – Share ideas, brainstorm solutions and discuss parameters and guidelines.
  • Executive Sponsor briefing and workshop – Share and discuss.
  • Concept review and decision making – Prioritizing solutions based on impact and feasibility.
  • Insights sharing – Draft report on learnings from discovery, synthesis and design phases.
  • Pilot park recruitment – Update criteria for prototype testing and communicate need for pilot parks.

Next Up

 

  • Concept pitch – Describe prioritized concepts to Executive Sponsors and Core Team.
  • Refining ideas  Expand on prioritized ideas to ensure solutions meet design principles and are feasible for further testing.
  • Prototyping – Design development and testing.
  • Select pilot parks and conduct prototype tests – Explore and validate principles and draft tools with pilot parks.

Resources

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