Gary Light (far right) and City of Loveland crew
Picture a typical visitor center in any given city. How would you describe it? You might say it’s antiquated, full of brochures, useless information and cheesy tchotchkes. If you’re a digital-native, you might not even know what a visitor center is, why would you when you have a computer or smartphone with access to the whole world? Now take all of those preconceived notions and throw them out the window. The Loveland Visitors Center in Centerra is not your average information center. And the man who manages it, Gary Light, is not your typical visitor center manager.
Gary and his wife moved from Colorado Springs to Loveland in 1990, when development on Centerra was just beginning. He taught business, marketing and computers at Loveland High School where he also ran business clubs including DECA and FBLA. For 20 years, Gary helped his students become more employable and connected them with local businesses until he retired in 2010. After a short break, Gary started with the Loveland Visitors Center in 2012. Since beginning, he has been instrumental in making the visitor center what it is today and driving their mission: visitors will leave the center better than when they came in.
People from all over the country and the world go to the visitor center to, at the very least, gather information about the area, places to go and things to do. But when you meet Gary he won’t just hand you a brochure and send you on your way. Gary is a people-person. There’s nothing he loves more than spending time with someone, hearing their story and creating a genuine connection. When you go to the Loveland Visitors Center, Gary will always take the time to get to know you and understand what you’re looking for so he can craft the perfectly customized Loveland experience. Even better, he finds something for you that you didn’t know you were looking for.
How does he do it? It starts with building an incredible team with extensive knowledge of the community. The Loveland Visitors Center team consists of Gary, four staff members and 25 volunteers all of whom love their community and want to share it with visitors. They are dedicated to being the go-to for all things Loveland and Centerra. Gary always encourages the team to get out and explore Centerra so they’ve had first-hand experiences and can provide guests with accurate information as well as something they couldn’t have learned about online. It’s one thing for the team to know there are 82 sculptures are in Chapungu Sculpture Park, but it’s another to have been there and be able to share which sculptures are their favorites and what visitors can expect when they visit.
Once the team knows everything there is to know about Centerra, they have to learn how to be good listeners. This is Gary’s favorite part of working at the visitor center. He won’t just tell you his favorite place to eat, he’ll talk with you about what you like and what you’re looking for. Then, somehow, he’ll tell you your new favorite place to eat. For one person, maybe it’s prime rib at Bent Fork. For someone else, it could be Biaggi’s house-made pasta. Or perhaps it’s as simple as a hot bowl of soup on a cold day at Panera. It’s not about the where, it’s about finding great experiences for visitors, and the best way to do that is to listen. It’s one of the things visitors love about the Loveland Visitors Center, and it keeps them coming back.
It’s quite unusual for a visitor center to see repeat guests. Usually, guests come in, get the information they’re looking for and then they’re on their way, but Gary sees many visitors come back. Sometimes they’re looking for more recommendations. Often, they’re just dropping in to say hello and share their experiences, which Gary wholeheartedly supports. He loves when guests come back and share how their experience was or when they send him a picture of what they did while they were in Centerra. It’s not just out-of-town visitors who keep coming back, but longtime residents too.
A visitor center inspiring this level of enthusiasm is not something you find many places, but a community like Centerra also isn’t something you see many places. When Gary first moved to Centerra, he knew it was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but he knew in his gut Centerra was special. Now, after many years in the community, he thinks it’s something about the name “Loveland” and the way it inspires the community to love where they live and share that love with others. It’s a feeling Gary has worked to incorporate into the visitor center. From an incredibly kind and helpful staff to high-quality locally produced merchandise and artwork, Gary wants the Loveland Visitors Center to be representative of the entire Centerra community.
Centerra is a special place for Gary. He loves the long sight lines that allow you to see everything from the plains to Lake Loveland to Longs Peak, the focus on sustainability, the small-town “Truman Show” community feel and how genuinely nice everyone is. His top priority is to help visitors explore the community that holds a special place in his heart, but he also sees his role as being responsible for much more than that; he’s an advocate for the entire Colorado region. One of his favorite things to do with visitors is draw an hour circle around Loveland and show them how many places they can get to. Want to head to Cheyenne for a day-trip? No problem! How about Denver? Just hop on I-25. Ready for a mountain escape? Rocky Mountain National Park is a quick and easy drive. Centerra means “center of the earth.” Anywhere you want to go, anything you want to do is easily accessible, and Gary and his team know how to get you there.
It’s this incredible depth of knowledge combined with creating an extraordinary experience through human connections that make a brick and mortar visitor center thrive in a digital age. Gary knows visitors could easily access all kinds of information online. Digital works really well if you know exactly where you want to go. For Gary, that’s not enough. He wants to get you places you never knew you wanted to go. Getting there is easy. All you have to do is stop by the Loveland Visitors Center and be open to the unexpected.