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To Work at Welcome Center, You Just Need All the Answers

October 20, 2009 - KITTERY -- After watching five or six tourists step up to the counter at the Maine Visitor Information Center here and ask for maps, I felt confident.

Heck, I can hand out a map, I thought. I can even give semi-accurate directions to L.L. Bean in Freeport, which several visitors asked about. Just stay on the highway and get off at Freeport, right?

So I turned to Barbara Daughan, one of the five "travel counselors" helping tourists on the Friday afternoon before the Columbus Day weekend, and told her I was ready to try my hand at her job.

"Hi, we'd like to find a nice place for a lobster roll, and see some lighthouses and beaches, and we have about an hour," said a smiling gray-haired man from North Carolina, with his wife at his side.

I looked at the map of Maine laminated onto the counter in front of me and felt my brain racing off in 10 different directions. Red's Eats in Wiscasset has great lobster rolls, but is there a beach nearby? And how long does it take to get there from here? Where's the closest lighthouse anyway? Is Cap'n Newick's restaurant still open in Maine?

I started pointing vaguely at the map, saying things like, "Well, there are nice beaches all up and down here" and "lots of nice lighthouses, too." I remembered hearing another counselor saying counselors can't recommend restaurants, so I threw that in for good measure.

Then Daughan handed me a map of York, the next town north of here, and whispered, "I usually start people off with driving along the beaches in York, seeing Nubble Light, and I tell them there are lots of places to eat along the way."

So I handed the couple the map, repeated what Daughan said, and smiled. They thanked me and walked away.

I had started my time at the visitor center with Marcia Peverly, the facility's manager since 1985 and a travel counselor as well. She told me that even though open-ended itinerary questions seem daunting at first, after some time on the job, they don't.

There are always other counselors to help you out, she told me. Plus, once you become familiar with the 1,200 pieces of travel literature in the center, and the maps and the computer database containing incredibly specific information from the 1,662 businesses that make up the Maine Tourism Association, it's not really that hard.

That may be so, but I'm here for two hours, not two years, I think to myself.

A little later on, Daughan steps to the counter to help a woman from Pennsylvania who opens with "I have five or six days, what can I see in Maine?"

After a few pointed questions from Daughan "Do you want to see the coast?" "Are you interested in Acadia?" the woman had all the information, maps and pamphlets she needed to plan out her week.

"Some people want you to plan their whole vacation, and we can't do that," Daughan said. "But most have an idea of what they want to see, and they help narrow things down for you."

Peverly, Daughan and the other travel counselors on duty tell me it doesn't take long to recognize the most common questions, such as "How do I get to Acadia?" or "Where can I see a moose?"

Travel counselor Diane Angus tells me she offers three routes to Acadia National Park, depending on how much time people have. She tells them to take Route 1 for coastal scenery, if they have five to six hours, or I-95 to Bangor, if they want the quickest route, or I-95 to Augusta and then Route 3 to Belfast, if they want some nice scenery and don't mind a slightly longer drive than the Bangor route.

As far as moose, the counselors suggest general areas, such as Rangeley or Moosehead Lake. But lots of people don't want to drive the four or five hours to get to those spots. Plus, some folks think spotting a moose is as easy as finding a lobster hat in a gift shop, and they might be disappointed if they drive four hours and come back moose-less.

So if people want a sure-fire moose sighting, the counselors sometimes recommend the state-run Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, a half-hour from Portland, where injured or baby moose live in fenced confines.

The visitor center was fairly busy when I was there, with no fewer than two dozen tourists milling around at any one time. But it's busier in summer, I'm told.

Much of the time, all five travel counselors were at the counter answering questions and handing out maps and pamphlets.

Learning the location of all 1,200 travel brochures is not an insignificant task. Most of the maps are right under the counter from left to right, in geographic order from south to north. So if you find the York map, you know Kennebunk is a little more to the right, and Portland farther right still. But if you don't know where a place is, you may never find that map.

Although the visitor center is right on I-95 and is sort of a gateway to Maine, it's not run by the state. That's the job of the Maine Tourism Association, which has a contract with the state to run eight information centers across Maine.

Travel counselors need to have a pretty good working knowledge of Maine geography, including where the prime attractions are. That's one consideration when a new counselor is hired, said Vaughn Stinson, CEO of the tourism association. But more importantly, said Stinson, is that people come to the job with "excellent customer service skills." Past work at L.L. Bean, for instance, would be a plus.

And because the visitor centers need more help in the summer, Stinson is able to hire a lot of people from varied backgrounds looking for summer work, including teachers, librarians and retirees.

"I think in the 11 years I've been here we've gotten one written complaint about an employee at a center," said Stinson. "And that's important to us."

That means the counselors have to keep their cool and be polite when they get questions such as "Where do I buy a sheep?" Peverly heard that one years ago.

I know I had to bite my tongue a little when Edward Barrass, of Jackson, Tenn., asked me for some information about "Nooble" lighthouse. "Nooble?" I mocked in my head. "Like noodle? We have no noodle lighthouse."

But I forced my inner mocking to stop and realized he probably meant Nubble Light. Then I opened myself up to mocking, since I had only a vague idea where it was, somewhere south of Portland, but which town? York, Ogunquit, Kennebunk? All those beach towns sort of blurred in my head.

Barrass had also mentioned Kennebunk, so I grabbed that map and started desperately searching with my finger. "It's right along I think it's right over maybe it's near the ..."

No luck. So I grabbed another travel counselor, James Huebner, and asked him where Nubble Light is. York, one town north from here, he said. So I grabbed a York map, but still couldn't find it.

Finally Huebner had to step in. He calmly gave Barrass step-by-step directions, from turning right out of the center's parking lot, to how many traffic lights he'd pass on the way.

Barrass thanked Huebner, and he thanked me, too. For trying, I guess.

And if you can find a job where people thank you just for trying, I'd say you should take it.

By RAY ROUTHIER, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, October 19, 2009


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