Close to 70,000 visitors a year wander into the visitor center here, a space smaller than the average living room. Along with hundreds of attraction fliers and restaurant menus, they're likely to find manager Paul Dalton at the counter.
The baritone voice belies his onetime career as a radio announcer in Indiana. Since opening the new center seven years ago, Dalton, 64, has directed thousands of tourists to the restrooms. Asked about a good place for dinner, he opens with a stock line: "We've got about 60 restaurants here on the island, from Thai to Japanese to Chinese, Italian, seafood. What do you like?"
But his job as welcome ambassador in an economy dependent on visitors involves more than simply shilling for the local businesses.
How would you describe your job here?
We're like a beach concierge. We help people find hotel rooms. We call restaurants and ask if they can take a group of 20. We'll try to help people look for boats. On a given day, we'll direct people how to get to John's Pass, Busch Gardens, sell tickets for all that stuff.
Do that many people show up without a room reservation?
Today, at least six or seven. We had a couple in last week from Quebec who booked a place, but when they arrived, it wasn't what they wanted … something where they could go roller blading, that had a full kitchen and separate bedrooms. And they were looking for a two-week stay.
What's a more typical visitor want?
First thing they'll ask about is maps. Then they'll ask what is there to do here. We get into the whole spiel about all our boats for lunch and dinner cruises and dolphin watching and everything we have in the marina. Then we get into things like the aquarium across the street. The sunset festival is here every night for arts and crafts and music. Everything from jewelry makers, glass blowers, sketch artists, you name it.
You work for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is contracted by the city to run this place. Can you only talk about local businesses?
We were put here to drive business to the businesses in the Clearwater area. (But they) don't have a Busch Gardens in Clearwater, so I can (send them to) Tampa. If I don't have a casino boat here and they've got one in St. Pete, I can send them there. We try to sell the Tampa Bay experience. We try to make sure they know Tarpon Springs is here. We talk about the Pier in St. Pete.
Are a lot of visitors pretty clueless about Clearwater Beach and the area?
You have people who have been here several days and don't realize they're on an island here. We have to show them the pictures. Maybe they came in after dark, spent the week walking up and down the beach without realizing it. Sometimes, this is the first beach they've ever been to. They come in from Iowa, maybe they've never been to Florida.
Do you see a lot of return visitors?
Quite often, this is going to be the place they come to relax after doing a week, two weeks in Orlando. They like to come here because it's laid back, it's casual. Where they can wear their shorts and flip flops and baseball caps.
Are there any services you do that weren't on the job description?
You might have a lost child in the park, so we have to work with the police. We may have an elderly person that's had too much sun, so we have to get on the phone with medical units here.
We quite often have people ask if there are any nude beaches. Sometimes, the translation gets bogged down or they don't speak English, especially with the Germans and some of the French. We've had to send some people down to the beach to ask ladies to put their tops back on.
Is that your job?
That's the beach patrol's job.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384