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For visitors, Mystic Chamber welcome center offers a personal touch

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Mystic — Karen Pallat was on her third day visiting Mystic, and with two nights to go, she and her family stopped in to the welcome center Wednesday at the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce to learn what else there was to do.

Pallat, who is from Ohio, was with her daughter and son-in-law, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary next week. They wanted to go camping in New England, and their trip would end in Maine.

As they entered the brightly lit center, volunteers Joanne and Ken Levy sprang into action: They took out maps, and they had questions and suggestions at the ready.

"Keep in the mind the restaurants, the bakeries, the galleries, and it's turned out to be a beautiful day for walking," Joanne Levy said on Wednesday morning.

The chamber moved its offices to the second floor of 62 Greenmanville Ave. in November and opened the visitor welcome center in May. The center has grown and evolved in the months since, and the chamber has many plans for the year ahead.

The visitor center is part of a shift the chamber has made in the past year toward focusing on tourism.

"We found this building with that in mind, being that it's centrally located, there's offices upstairs, it has parking," said chamber President Peggy Roberts.

Over the summer, interns orchestrated "Freebie Fridays," in which people could win a prize like a baseball hat or event tickets by liking the chamber on social media. Later in the summer, the chamber started having merchants out on the lawn, especially those who are harder to find.

For example, Mystified tried a 15-minute version of its escape-the-room game with passers-by. This is one business that Roberts, who has been chamber president since January, has learned more about since the center's inception.

She also has learned more about Paddle Mystic. She didn't realize the ferry does lighthouse tours. She is surprised at how many pet-friendly places there are in the area. (The center has a list of pet-friendly places, along with a list of rainy day activities.)

Looking forward, Roberts said the chamber wants to revamp the buy-local program Mystic Dollars. She also is thinking about building on a recent Boston Globe article about the Mystic dining scene by offering a foodie tour.

Another consideration is to create some sort of kiosk or experience in downtown Mystic.

Roberts said the welcome center "is kind of our crown jewel that we want to continue to develop."

Upon walking into the center, to the left is a room with a video screen and advertising from some of the chamber's biggest sponsors, like Mystic Aquarium and Foxwoods. In the hallway is a nautically colored map showcasing Mystic tourist highlights, while a room to the right contains dozens of brochures and guides.

Volunteers try to greet visitors at the door to ask where they're from and what kinds of things they're looking to do.

Two of the dozen or so regular volunteers are the Levys, a retired couple who has been volunteering with the chamber — at events like Mystic Eats and the Mystic Arts Festival — for more than 15 years. They had a second home in Mystic for 20 years and then retired from Tolland to Mystic two years ago.

In volunteering at the welcome center, Ken Levy said he has been surprised at the number of international visitors from Japan, China, Germany and the Netherlands.

Visitors "don't want a map handed to them and said, 'OK, here's a map, go,'" Joanne Levy said, adding, "I think people are surprised at how personal the touch is here."

e.moser@theday.com

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