Wharton: These volunteers represent Utah to the world
The volunteers who work the information desk at the Visit Salt Lake office and store inside the Salt Palace get some strange questions.
One older gentleman asked retired newspaper printer and volunteer Dale Hansen where he could find a sperm bank. Volunteer Christiane Huckin regularly gets asked where downtown Salt Lake City is located, despite the fact that the Salt Palace is right in the middle of it. Some from big cities look at her as if to say "This is it?" Volunteers regularly get asked where they might see a Mormon.
Veteran workers such as Huckin, Hansen and Chuck McClure love the interaction they get with hundreds of visitors, many from foreign lands. And they get a kick out of sharing their expertise with those who know Utah, Salt Lake City and the Intermountain area well and those who know almost nothing.
"I have been doing this for 22 years," said Huckin, a native of Germany, who speaks four languages. "I love to give information to anybody who comes in. It gives me an opportunity to practice my languages when international tourists come in. I can answer their questions according to what they need to know. Sometimes it's just a little thing. But Dale and I often put together whole itineraries for southern Utah and even Yellowstone."
According to Bill Krause, who manages the information center for Visit Salt Lake, 17 volunteers work at the visitor center. He is actually looking for more who like to introduce people to their home.
Hansen takes pride in exploring the state, trying local restaurants, learning about historic trails such as the Oregon, Mormon and California that run through Utah, telling about national parks, revealing interesting ghost towns and even sending people to spots many Utahns have never heard about.
His travels have convinced him of the value of public lands and turned him into a big supporter of the federal government continuing to manage them. He's also convinced that tourism is one of the cleanest industries in Utah.
McClure volunteers not only at Visit Salt Lake, but to give tours of the Utah Capitol building. He's volunteered since 2004.
"I enjoy being with people and visiting with them," he said.
Temple Square and the Great Salt Lake remain top local attractions, though volunteers do answer many ski-related questions in the winter. Hansen was once asked "where do they put the moguls in the winter" when he was at a ski resort. There are often questions about polygamy, liquor laws or where to eat dinner or sleep.
Huckin said she encourages visitors to see the new Natural History Museum of Utah or Leonardo museums.
Hansen has found that many of the foreign visitors express a great deal of interest in visiting the Colorado Plateau and Utah's five national parks.
"I once visited Dead Horse Point, and it seemed as though all the tourists were German," said Hansen. "Most speak English. They said they didn't want to see mountains, because they have mountains. 'We don't have canyons. This is where we want to come.'"
Huckin said a number of visitors return to the center and thank her for giving them a tip on something interesting to see.
"Ninety-eight percent are wonderful, really nice curious people," she said. "Some who come in here are the rudest of the rude."
The visitor center can also be an excellent resource for locals, many of whom don't take the time to explore what their own city has to offer. There are dozens of free brochures as well as numerous Salt Lake souvenirs for sale.
But the best part will likely be interacting with one of the volunteers who obviously love people as much as they love their home state and town.