Future location of Discover Newport's Pop-Up Visitor Center

In May, Discover Newport will open what it calls a “pop-up” visitors’ center, demonstrating its optimism that the local tourism industry will rebound this summer and fall, a prelude to a more robust recovery next year from a worldwide pandemic that started a year ago.

That’s the view of Evan Smith, executive director of Discover Newport that has re-defined itself during the pandemic, not unlike similar agencies worldwide. It also comes at a time when the tourism industry, devasted by the pandemic, sees reason for hope.

“The last 12 months have been nothing short of excruciating,” Smith said. “We’re happy that we’re planning on a brighter new day ahead of us.”

That won’t come until the third and fourth quarters this year – summer into fall – and it brings innovations not shared by all tourism agencies nationwide. Unlike 40 percent of tourism agencies that don’t operate a visitors’ centers, Smith said that at least experimentally Discover Newport will re-open a visitors’ center, albeit much reduced from the one that was housed at the Gateway Center for 32 years. 

The new center, Smith said, will open in the 750 square foot former L’OCCITANE at Long Wharf Mall, not far from Discover Newport’s marketing and sales office, also at Long Wharf. In May, he said, it will open four days a week, in June it expands to five days a week, and in July and August seven days a week. He said one person will staff the center when open. Discover Newport has signed an eight-month lease and will evaluate the center’s success at the end of the year.

Opening the “pop-up” center means hiring four part-time employees, Smith said. He said Discover Newport first reached out to employees that were laid off when the Gateway Visitor Center closed, recognizing some former employees had moved on and others decided to retire. He said four former employees applied.

Unlike its former visitor center at the Gateway Center – now Gateway Transportation Center – it will not offer ticket sales, but rather circulate visitor information about activities and services in the nine towns in Newport and Bristol Counties, Smith said. “The visitor center’s role is changing,” Smith said. “Still, a number of people want to talk to people, rather than a computer.”

Discover Newport first designed the Gateway Visitors Center in 1985, just as cell phones were becoming available, and eight years before the web entered the public domain. The center opened in 1988, remaining there for 32 years.

Meanwhile, the city of Newport and Save the Bay are in negotiations, potentially moving Save the Bay’s Easton’s Beach aquarium to the Center. The Gateway Transportation Center continues as a transportation hub, providing RIPTA and tour vehicle operations.

Travel to Newport and much of Rhode Island will look a bit different this year, with international travel, which accounted for 18 percent of Newport’s tourism, “gone,” Smith said.  There will be no cruise ships, no tour buses. Cruises, he suspects, could return the following year.

But there will be events – Governor McKee just announced that he’s working with the Newport folk and jazz festivals to develop a plan for events that have a tremendous economic impact on not only Newport and the state. The Newport Music Festival – the third of the important Newport music festivals – has already announced that it will hold its three-week event in July with 17 concerts, less than half of what it normally holds, and all outside. Other events, across the state, have been announcing that they will be held, with configurations that are compliant with regulations set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The first of those events in Newport, Smith said, is the Back in Bloom festival at Newport’s Rosecliff mansion from June 18-20.

Destinations like Newport, Block Island and Rhode Island’s South County will “do well” this year, as travelers look to escape metropolitan areas “finding safety and solitude” in resort areas, Smith said. Those travelers will mostly come by car from the Northeast, mainly Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.

Discover Newport remains a critical part of the region’s tourism industry, seeing its primary mission as a sales and marketing organization, competing with hundreds of destinations globally, and secondarily operating its visitor center.

“There were times,” Smith said, “that I felt we were not going to make. But now the dark clouds are behind us. A lot of things to feel good about. Onward and upward.”