The Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) has begun selling “memberships” to the New Hope visitors center, and it seems that having one’s business recommended by staff there is becoming a pay-for-play proposition. New Hope Borough on March 17 approved a five-year lease with (BCP) for the historic visitor’s center at a rate of $1 per year.
Playhouse officials had previously assured business owners that the four basic services traditionally provided by the visitors center — public restrooms, quarters for paying parking meters, rack space for business brochures, and referrals by staff — would remain free of charge.
But a journey through the “New Hope Visitors Center Charter Membership” sales process reveals a business model that transforms the landmark from a free, helpful source of public information into a tourist marketing center where businesses are included on a pay-for-display basis.
The Playhouse is marketing three levels of membership: standard for $45 per month, $65 per month for “premium restaurant members,” and $25 per month for non-profit groups. Some of that money will go towards a listing in Bucks County Playhouse season programs as “recommended vendors.” That promotional literature will also be distributed at the visitors center, and members can get a discount on advertising in BCP playbills.
But membership in the visitors center also includes “prominent placement and display/distribution of brochures along with appropriate promotional materials,” according to a BCP marketing piece. Wait a minute…wasn’t display of brochures supposed to be free?
“Membership is about exclusivity and very limited real estate,” advised a New Hope Visitors Center salesperson. “There’s some resistance level there, and there’s some that feel we should do it, and we’ll try our best to accommodate businesses, but paid members get prime visibility. The theater is spending a lot of money.”
Huh? “Decisions were made just last week, and the grand opening will be at the end of the month,” continued the salesperson. “Brochures will be free, but it’s first-come, first-served. If you’re paid, you get priority. If there’s space left, then we’ll get you in the pack. We’re on a learning curve.”
Asked repeatedly which restaurant the visitors center staff would hypothetically recommend to an inquiring guest, the visitors center salesperson finally replied, “People in the past were more passive. We will certainly recommend non-members if we can. We’ll encourage our people in the visitors center to recommend participating businesses.”
The visitors center brochure goes on to describe additional features of membership, like a short spot on the center’s wide-screen TV, six tickets to a BCP play, a chance at participating in a rotating product demonstration, inclusion in email blasts, inclusion in an advertising campaign to be announced, a link to one’s website and, interestingly, “price protection” for one year, implying that fees will be rising down the road.
In balance, the promotional add-ons offered by the visitors center for $45 per month (they’ll even give you January and February membership for free) seem feature-rich and well thought out. Interestingly, membership will also be offered to non-New Hope businesses.
Asked about prior assurances that historically free services provided to the New Hope business community will remain free of charge, Producing Director Alex Fraser initially indicated in an interview that BCP had promised that only listings on the visitor center website would be free for all businesses, and that brochure rack space was previously unused and not in demand.
When pressed further, Fraser said, “My intention is that every business can be represented in there with their flyers.”
That sounds like a good idea, since the visitors center lease circulated in March states, “BCPT shall provide display racks at the property for promotional materials in addition to those being provided by the Borough,” and that, “At the reasonable request of any business located within New Hope Borough, BCPT shall provide, at no cost, a link to such business on the visitor’s center website and access to any data collected identifying visitors to the website.”
Asked where the visitors center staff might hypothetically direct a tourist inquiring about shopping for antiques, Fraser said, “We’re considering a book with business cards in it, and we’re talking about getting volunteers who will solicit additional volunteers. We will have a list of basic services in town — lodging, restaurants — and people will be given the book if they ask.”
So why the discrepancy between the relatively inclusive language coming from the articulate and personable Fraser, and what’s being pitched privately to businesses around town in terms of the exclusive and privileged visibility they can expect for their money?
“We’re still working on it,” said Fraser. “When we’re done with everything, we’ll put out a release and then everyone can see what we’re doing.”
Asked for his reaction to the visitors center membership plan, Greater New Hope Chamber of Commerce President John Danaher said, “I’m in negotiations with the Playhouse and Borough council as to the use of the visitors center and our representation there.”