Back when Princeton was a small college town and Princeton University football was its biggest draw, game day visitors often bought their tickets at the two kiosks on Nassau Street. The small windows in the two structures — one at the corner of Vandeventer Street; the other at Witherspoon — have been closed tight in more recent years. The kiosks have served as unofficial bulletin boards, advertising everything from yoga classes and rooms for rent to political meetings and cultural events.
Plans are underway for the kiosks to welcome visitors again. Once a project that is being steered by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau is officially approved, the kiosks, along with a small visitors’ center in the front of the Princeton University Store on Nassau Street, will make the town and the Mercer County region more user-friendly for the busloads of tourists who regularly descend on the area.
“Of course I’d like things to happen immediately, but I’m hoping we are very close to getting final approvals in the month of September,” said Lori Rabon, who chairs the CVB steering committee. “The best thing is the visitors’ center. We have so many visitors and we need to have a spot where they can get maps, information, and everything they need. Right now there is no central area where people can get this information, and that is such a shame. I’m hoping this will drive more people into the U-store and drive business everywhere.”
Tourism has become big business in Princeton. Since starting Princeton Tour Company in 2008, Mimi Omiecinski has watched her business balloon by 75 percent. “I have at least 150 each Saturday in the summer, and then get about 400 in fall and spring,” she said. Tours of town led by the Historical Society of Princeton have also grown in recent years. “It’s been especially busy in the past year,” said Eve Mandel, the HSP’s Curator of Education. “We’ve sold out every Saturday this summer. We’ve had to increase the number of guides and the number of tours we give, because we hate to turn anybody away.”
Ms. Omiecinski used to begin her themed tours outside Starbucks at 100 Nassau Street. Jim Sykes, president of the U-Store a few doors down, asked her if she would like to assemble her tourists inside the store instead. She took him up on the offer, and soon came up with an idea. “I thought, why not a visitors’ center in there? He has bathrooms, a staff, it’s air-conditioned, there’s room for racks of information,” Ms. Omiecinski said. “I asked Jim if he would give up some space in the store, and he was happy to do it.”
Mr. Sykes said the visitors’ center will be on a platform in the front window, by the door that the store does not use. Display terminals will allow visitors to access maps and event schedules, and literature about various attractions will be available.
“We track all the numbers, and at this location we get about 240,000 people a year coming through,” Mr. Sykes said (the U-store’s other location is on Alexander Street). “Some of them are students, but probably one out of every five or six are tourists. The tour groups have picked up a lot in the last three or four years. From my observations, there can be seven or eight buses dropping people off. Many of them come in to buy a souvenir from us and hopefully other spots in town.”
The Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce was one of 16 organizations to receive a Destination Marketing Organization Grant from the State of New Jersey’s Travel and Tourism office last January. The $123,000 grant is intended to fund programs not just in Princeton, but in 18 municipalities in Mercer County. “It’s not just about the downtown,” said Ms. Rabon. “It’s taking a more regional approach. There was over a billion dollars in tourism expenditures last year in Mercer County alone. We want to give people a complete exposure to the region. We will have information about the Princeton region, which encompasses a great deal of the county.”
Once discussions got underway about a visitors’ center, the Chamber also began to consider using the kiosks for informational purposes. The hope is to install touch-screens with information in different languages. Notices can still be posted, but with some oversight.
“The idea is that we’ve got these two kiosks which are unmanned, and unmanageable to a degree,” said Peter Crowley, the Chamber’s President and CEO. “We talked to the Borough and told them we wanted to beautify the kiosks and bring them up to date, making them more focused and interactive. They have electricity, so the raw material is already there. We think this will be enhanced material not only for the tourist, but also for the consumer and the person who lives right here.”
Ms. Rabon said the kiosks will have some new uses but not be significantly altered. “They’ll have the same size, and the same feel,” she said. “We’ll utilize four or five different panels. What it’s going to do is clean up the way we put the information out to people. This is where the interactive piece will play a key role. My hope is that we’ll be able to use them both in the same way.”
While the process is still underway, Ms. Rabon is confident that the final product will enhance the tourism experience for visitors and residents alike. The CVB steering committee wants to work with the Princeton Merchants Association and the Princeton Area Arts & Culture Consortium as well, she said.
“What I’m hoping is that this will drive business not just at the U-store, but everywhere in the region,” she said. “This is great exposure for everyone.”