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Keystone Welcome Center counselors savor new training to enhance the Pennsylvania travel experience

July 07, 2021 08:00 AM
By: Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

​PennDOT has taken steps to enhance one of its premier customer service missions, its 14 Keystone Welcome Centers, by instituting a Travel and Tourism Certification Program for its team of 54 Tourist Information Counselors. The Travel and Tourism Certification Program was established to promote high quality travel information services and enhance the personal efforts, skills and achievements of Pennsylvania's Tourist Information Counselors who direct and advise travelers seeking assistance. 

View of Keystone Welcome Center in Erie County from parking lot with vehicles parked
Outside the Keystone Welcome Center in Erie County.
The Welcome Centers encounter more than 3 million visitors each year, and the training certification program will help the counselors deliver even better experiences to travelers.

"We are seeing people from all around world in here. It's pretty amazing," noted counselor Paula Tatalone from the Keystone Welcome Center at Pennsylvania's Great Lakes on Interstate 90 Westbound near the New York border. "Moving forward, we will definitely be able to offer more."

Tourism Services Manager, Tiffany Brown, has participated in national meetings where tourism counselor training certification programs were discussed, and she knew Tourist Information Counselors at the Welcome Centers were interested in having a similar program in Pennsylvania.  

She and Welcome Center Manager, Megan Hakes, developed a blueprint and moved ahead even in the face of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 20-plus hours of training were offered virtually and included information on: 

  • Immersion in the Pennsylvania Byways program 
  • Map reading 
  • Planning and developing travel itineraries 
  • Heritage areas 
  • Historic trails 
  • National Register of Historic Places 
  • Geography of Pennsylvania 
Tiffany Brown smiling in a selfie
Tourism Services Manager Tiffany Brown.
"Customer service is a huge part of what the Tourist Information Counselors do, so it was also important for them to take training in active listening, email etiquette, stress management and dealing with difficult customers," Brown said. "The training certification program also includes courses in bridging better communications, steering through difficult situations and stepping up expectations."

The Talent Development Section in the Office of Administration's Infrastructure and Economic Delivery Center assisted Brown and Hakes with tweaking the training to make it specific to frontline customer service. The training was open to counselors who have been on the job for at least a year. The first round ran from January through June during which 28 counselors completing the training. A second session is planned for July through December.

As part of the training, Hakes developed project assignments, such as planning itineraries for a party of eight travelers. Such planning involved looking at different heritage areas of Pennsylvania. 

Megan Hakes headshot in front of window
Welcome Center Manager Megan Hakes.
"It was a great learning experience for the counselors to understand what heritage areas are," Hakes said. "I also had them do a project where they learned about Pennsylvania Scenic Byways and National Byways."

The exercise involved using such tools as MapQuest, Google Maps, 511PA, and Bing Maps.

"We helped them hone all those skills using different tools," Hakes added.

A virtual graduation ceremony, including the bestowing of special pins, is scheduled for later this summer. 

Lori Whitlatch standing behind large counter at Welcome Center
Tourist Information Counselor Lori Whitlatch.
Counselor Lori Whitlatch of the Keystone Welcome Center at Laurel Highlands on Interstate 79 Northbound just north of the West Virginia border, said the training was "enlightening."

"It was very in depth …," she said. "I learned a lot of information I didn't know. I had never done any work with byways … It was a totally new topic for me. I learned a lot about byways."

Whitlatch, a 20-year veteran counselor, said she most enjoys meeting people from around the world who stop at her center, and she looks forward to applying the lessons learned from the training.

"What we learned, we will incorporate in our everyday work," she said. "It was a great learning tool for us. I enjoyed it, and it was something to stretch my knowledge and education."  

Lambrini Cassulis standing beside display with brochures and magazines at Welcome Center
Tourist Information Counselor Lena Cassulis.
Counselor Lena Cassulis of the Keystone Welcome Center at Delaware Water Gap on Interstate 80 near the border with New Jersey, said the training was great and that her favorite part was "learning about different areas of the state and looking at everything through a magnifying glass to serve all the areas, finding out what the state has to offer."

A counselor for seven years, she added that the training "makes me more knowledgeable to tell travelers a lot more. There are a lot of people traveling through the state, and now we are more aware of different things that are out there."

Paula seated at Welcome Center desk smiling at computer with Maria standing beside her
Tourist Information Counselors Carmen Barton (left) and Paula Tatalone (right).
Counselor Tatalone, who has been in her position for more than 14 years, felt the itinerary training was her favorite topic.

"It required us to use the entire state," she said. "A lot of us are familiar with what is available in our respective regions. It's nice when we get to do more involving other regions of Pennsylvania. I am on the west side, and I got to dig deep and find itineraries in, for example, Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and it gave us new knowledge of areas we don't get to do too often."

Tatalone added that meeting and helping travelers is her favorite part of the job. 

"Some come in lost, some are kind of panicked, and some don't have a destination. To be able to take time and highlight the different areas of the state, travelers are always so happy they're in Pennsylvania." 

Photos of two Welcome Centers side-by-side, Delaware Water Gap and Greene
Keystone Welcome Center at Delaware Water Gap (left) and Keystone Welcome Center in Greene County (right).

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