Started in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this program has been so popular it may very well continue in perpetuity.
“We knew in May – right before Polk County fields re-opened – that we had to do the right thing and double-down on sanitation,” said Neal Duncan, the Senior Sales and Events Manager for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. “As part of our overall health and wellness initiative, we did a lot of things. But the one that proved the most effective was the simplest.”
Enter Emily Marshall and her husband, Wayde.
“We’d been manning a Visitor Information table at downtown Lakeland’s First Friday events for three years in the same spot,” said Emily. “Being in the same spot – that repetition of being in the same place – really helps. It is surprising how many people we see every month.”
Having already implemented a plan to extend the reach of the Visitor Information Center outside of its four walls in Davenport, Senior Visitor Services Manager Justin Laferriere seized the pandemic-induced opportunity. Now, wherever Emily and Wayde set up shop, they bring numerous pandemic-related health and safety items with them.
“Combining what Wayde and Emily do with health and safety just made sense,” said Laferriere. “Plus you couldn’t ask for better representatives of the county. They are just warm people – everyone feels good around them.”
What no one expected was the immediate and overwhelmingly positive response.
“From event organizers to event participants after loves having Wayde and Emily there,” said Laferriere. “Even we didn’t expect this good of a response.”
No one, except for Emily.
“People are grateful that someone cares,” she said. “Even after we’ve all slacked off doing those things we did before – washing our hands, wearing a mask when necessary and maintaining social distancing when needed – they don’t mind being reminded.”
According to Marshall, she and her husband have had a front row seat to the public’s evolving pandemic response.
“In the beginning, since no one could get hand sanitizer, that would be what would go first,” she said. “Sometimes they’d take handfuls, they were so desperate. Today, its mostly older folks. And the job has evolved into more of a teaching experience. Many times, people come back a second or third time just to say hello. They enjoy that we are there to remind folks to be safe.”
Of course, Visitor Guides and other information are also available to visitors.
“Depending on where we are depends on what we hand out,” said Emily. “Downtown, we not only hand out visitor guides but also a whole bunch of the ‘Directory of Services’ put out by Polk County. When we’re at an event, we have people stop by looking for additional things to do.”
To Laferriere, Emily and Wayde are the perfect extension to the Visitor Center’s mission.
“Our mission is to extend the spend,” he said. “Instead of turning left or right and exiting Polk, we want them to stop and have dinner or go see another attraction. Emily and Wayde make this happen every day when they set-up their table.”