A Grand Tour of Digital Signage: The SCVB Visitors Center

The city of Springfield, Illinois is not only the state capital of Illinois but is also home to destinations and attractions related to the most famous resident of this city in its history—sites like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, to name a few related to our nation’s sixteenth president.

But did you know that the city is also home to the Illinois State museum? Or how about a couple of amusement parks, as well as semi-pro hockey and football teams? Or how about the History Comes Alive season, several prominent Route 66 destinations, historic-based walking tours, and area winery/brewery trails?

The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (SCVB) is an important component in being able to get the word out to tourists and residents alike about these aforementioned attractions—promoting destinations and special events as well as even getting the word out about area businesses and restaurants.

In fact, the SCVB recently relocated to a brand-new Visitors Center complete with a dynamic interior digital display enhancing its environment and promoting area attractions.

A new digital sign mounted onto a wall in the main lobby enhances the story of Springfield, Illinois at the new SCVB Visitors Center.

Renovating the Visitor Experience

For years, the SCVB had been operating out of a shared administrative-type office. At this non-descript location, people would drop by and simply pick up information about tourism opportunities and events going on in the city.

But nearly two years ago, the SCVB decided it was time to gain more exposure about the goings-on in the area and decided to open a new, immersive, standalone Visitors Center that would be more welcoming and more audience-friendly.

The new SCVB Visitors Center is located in the completely renovated Lincoln-Herndon Law Office. This building stands across the street from the Old State Capitol and is famously known as the place where President Abraham Lincoln actually practiced law 170 years ago.

However, at the onset of this relocation project, the building was in serious need of repair and refurbishment in order to welcome locals and tourists as a Visitors Center. Accomplishing this involved a pretty thorough effort on the part of the SCVB and their hired construction crews.

“We pretty much did a 0-to-100 gut-and-remodel inside this historic location, just to be able to get it up-to-date and accessible for visitors,” says Jeff Berg, tourism manager for the SCVB.

However the SCVB knew that it was going to require more than just an internal renovation of the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office building in order to draw and keep visitors inside. They wanted to use the new venue to provide a fully immersive visual experience of the area that would motivate tourists to extend their stay in the city.

The gutted-out-and-rebuilt location now features comfortable seating, convenient access to brochures, and various travel experts able to provide guidance.

And it’s a very bright, very festive atmosphere inside. Wall graphics featuring a bevy of Springfield-related persons of interest, activities, and destinations, as well wall-mounted, LED-edge lit frame posters for attractions and events, adorn the lobby.

And, as mentioned earlier, the capping crown jewel is mounted prominently to one of the lobby walls—a complementary, full-color, 4-by-10-foot 3mm Watchfire Signs digital message center that displays tourism videos, frequently changing event messages, and vital information.

Bringing on a Sign Company

The SCVB brought onboard Ace Sign Company, also based out of Springfield, to make this immersive environmental graphics experience a reality.

Ace Sign Company is a full-service, family-owned and family-operated manufacturer and graphics company that produces and installs lots of work in the state of Illinois, as well as ships signage across the nation (and even internationally for some franchises in need). They are currently celebrating their eightieth anniversary in business, and today, they have a team of about sixty-five employees at their facility.

The City of Springfield had hired Ace Sign Company for a lot of prior signage work in the area, so they were an easy choice to complete this transformative project for the SCVB Visitors Center.

“We handled building, printing, and installing the wall coverings, the lighted poster frames, and the wayfinding signage,” says Scott Bringuet, chief experience officer of Ace Sign Company (as well as a fourth-generation family member). “We also conceptualized the Watchfire indoor display and incorporated it into the graphics during the early discussion phase.”

Ace Sign Company had quite an advantage in being able to specify a digital display to work for this project, as the company has actually been a Watchfire dealer for as long as the LED manufacturer has been in business (stretching back to having a relationship with the company when they were producing Time-O-Matic monochromatic time-and-temperature message boards).

Bringuet recognized that digital signage would be a great way for the SCVB to promote various tourism destinations while attracting people to the new Visitors Center.

“[The SCVB] wanted to use it in a more impactful way than a traditional display,” says Bringuet, noting that size and brightness played a role in the type of unit finally selected. “There is a lot of sunlight that shines into the Visitors Center lobby, so it was important that the display be fully visible at all times.”

The sign company showed Berg and other SCVB officials a sample of the LED display that they had in mind and demonstrated to them how it could easily display video, photos, and messages.

“At first, we were considering a large LCD, but as soon as I saw how beautiful the images looked on the display that [Bringuet] showed us and how easy it was to program, I knew this is what we wanted,” says Berg, noting that another benefit was that they could divide the sign screen up into content zones.

Bringuet says that while outdoor LED displays have long proven to be a “powerhouse” for his company, he has noticed an increase in interior installations as more manufacturers adapt their display offerings to offer indoor-attractive technology. He cites the SCVB Visitors Center as another example of this mindset.

The interior of the SCVB Visitors Center creates an immersive experience about the area and includes a digital sign, vinyl wall graphics, and LED-backlit poster frames.

Setting Up the Display

The main lobby of the Visitors Center is a 120-by-50-foot room with wood floors and very old construction. Since the SCVB Visitors Center is located in a historical building that the tourism organization leases from the Department of Natural Resources, there were some regulations they had to follow on their end when it came to the restoration of a historic building.

Fortunately there were no restrictions regarding to use of a digital sign on the premises since it was going to be inside, and Ace Sign Company had a lot of flexibility on their end. “The Visitors Center is in the heart of historic downtown Springfield, but we were able to integrate the new technology into that space with all its history,” says Bringuet.

The biggest challenge for Ace Sign Company was working around construction personnel painting walls and moving in furniture.

Installation was handled over two separate phases and took place shortly before the opening of the new Visitors Center. The wall graphics were installed first, and this was followed shortly thereafter by the digital display (which was built by Watchfire and shipped to Ace Sign Company, all during a six-week period).

“Basically we first printed a four-foot-tall band of wall coverings on self-adhesive fabric and applied them around the entire space,” says Bringuet. “Then we overlaid the LED-backlit poster frames over them on one wall.

“Then, once the display arrived shortly thereafter, we mounted it directly on top of the graphic band on the other wall, with wiring and power supplies located behind it.”

Getting the Information Out There

Not only is the four-by-ten-foot display easily viewed inside the Visitors Center, but it can also be seen from the street outside—and it has captured the attention of the general public, local residents, and the SCVB’s hospitality partners.

“Whether you’re walking by or driving by, you can see that the display really ‘pops!’” says Berg. “It announces our presence on the block, and I consider this a big win!”

Content featured on the Watchfire digital sign is updated regularly so as to remain current.

“We were really attracted to digital sign technology because it allowed us to program content for it only, as well as lets us be able to upload any changes quickly,” says Berg.

Ace Sign Company’s IT department, with some help from Watchfire Signs, trained Berg on how to generate and program content for the digital display.

The SCVB initially worked with an advertising agency to create and upload content, but Berg has since smoothly taken over the process so that content generation and scheduling is now done in-house. “I will be the first to admit that, although I am probably not pushing the technical boundaries with it that I could be, I do now have someone on-site assisting me with this,” he says, “and we are increasing its content.”

The SCVB currently runs a standard video about Springfield on the display, as well as an overview of upcoming special events. They also use content to promote other venues or businesses that visitors might not have thought about when making the decision to visit the city.

Certain content runs during normal Visitors Center hours until five o’clock, while different looping messages and greetings take over until eight o’clock at night before shutting off.

“We found that visitors really enjoy sitting down and watching the display loop through the photos, videos, and messages that we’ve programmed for it,” said Berg. “The digital sign really brings the Springfield story to life.”

A four-foot-tall band of wall coverings featuring Springfield-related imagery were printed onto self-adhesive fabric.

The new Visitors Center found itself on track to serve 15,000 to 20,000 visitors during its first year open (in 2019), a 700 percent increase from previous years. However last year brought new challenges—in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. This hasn’t stopped the Visitors Center from being able to effectively use their digital sign.

Berg says that featured content turned away from tourist-driven and instead toward situation-driven.

“During the early phases of the pandemic, we were still closed, so our messaging was a caring message about the community and promoting that travel awaits,” says Berg. “That really made a lot of people give feedback to us.”

And while sites and attractions opened back up last summer, they closed again this past holiday season due to state orders. Restaurants in the area also had to discontinue indoor seating.

However the SCVB was still able to use the digital display to get the word out about these actions.

Visitors, locals, and other government officials all appreciated the messaging programmed on the digital sign that provided information about where restaurants and businesses stood in operation at the time and displayed holiday greetings that proved encouraging.

Meanwhile Berg has plans to optimize every capability of the digital sign in the future (particularly when tourism gets back up and running), including posting social media comments and live streaming via Facebook Live from area events.

For sign shops, this is another such example of how they can get involved offering digital displays (particularly when it comes to complementing said technology with elements like vinyl graphics).

This Visitors Center environmental graphics project proved successful because of the integration of technology, having the right players aligned in terms of marketing and IT, and then having the SCVB streamline the process. “There was a great alignment of manufacturer, marketing, and the tourism department,” says Bringuet.

“I was always a huge fan of our wall-mounted digital display, although it was one of the higher price points in our remodel budget,” says Berg. “It was just something that really expresses emotion better than some other solutions that might have been cheaper.”

—Jeff Wooten

Note: Portions of this article appeared in a previously written press release.