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CVC Watch

As House appropriators prepare to meet this week for the 110th Congress’ first progress hearing on the Capitol Visitor Center, planning for the operational side of the underground facility continues to ramp up.

One of the first operational issues that the Office of the Architect of the Capitol is addressing at the CVC is the development of a Web-based advanced reservation and timed pass system that will be used to schedule Capitol tours for the roughly 3 million visitors who are expected to enter the CVC each year.[IMGCAP(1)]

Though the request for proposal that was released in August 2006 originally called for the reservation and ticketing system to be ready to go live by March 1, 2007, the AOC’s procurement division acknowledged this week that the office is still evaluating proposals and expects to award a contract for the new system by early March.

The system will be required to be up and running within five months of its award date, according to the RFP, which now puts it on track to be implemented sometime in August. That is still well before the CVC’s expected grand opening sometime in late 2007 or early 2008.

During peak season, an estimated 12,000 visitors a day are expected to take a Capitol tour. Each tour will begin in one of two 250-person orientation theaters in the CVC, but while waiting for that to begin they will be able to make use of the facility’s food court, gift shops and museum devoted to Congress.

The ticketing system is being designed with maximum flexibility in mind since hundreds of Congressional offices (both in Washington, D.C., and in the districts) will be required to have real-time access along with CVC administrators, private tour operators and, of course, the general public, who will access the system via a Web site or at automated kiosks on Capitol Hill.

“An advanced reservation system will allow for a more even distribution of visitors throughout the day and allow visitors to arrive at the CVC at a time closer to the start of their tour,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said this week.

The technical aspects of the Web-based reservation and timed pass system are staggering. For example, the RFP requires the system to have less than an hour of downtime on an annual basis and the AOC is considering making it available in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. (The RFP does not indicate how much the AOC is willing to pay for the new system, but its cost would come out of the CVC’s operations budget, which the AOC expects will be about $14 million in fiscal 2008.)

According to AOC solicitation documents, seven private consulting and engineering companies visited Capitol Hill in the fall for a CVC site walk to get some idea of how to design the system.

In amendments to those documents the AOC answered questions submitted by contractors after the site walk and gave some further ideas as to how the system is expected to work.

Admission to the CVC and passes for a Capitol tour will continue to be free, but visitors no longer will have to show up at the Capitol on the day they want to take a tour to claim one of a limited number of tickets. Tour groups and the public will be able to plan ahead by reserving their tickets online, through tour companies and through Member offices. The public will then be able to either print tickets at home or come to Capitol Hill to pick up the passes at ticket booths located in and around the CVC. For members of the public who don’t use the online system, staffed kiosks still will be located on the Capitol grounds to allow tourists to continue reserving their tickets that day.

“In general the sense that we were trying to convey … [is that] there isn’t a precise method for how people would flow through the visitor center,” said Caryn Rotheim, a contract specialist in the AOC’s Procurement Division who is overseeing CVC-related projects. “You don’t just pass checkpoint A and then from there have 5 minutes until a tour. It’s very free flowing. That was the most complex aspect of it, allowing for flexibility of scheduling at the site.

“It’s not like a movie theater where the movie is at 7 and you be there at 7 or you miss it,” she said of the envisioned tour-booking system. The new system will “allow people to feel that they can go in and enjoy the visitor center without feeling like they are rushed. … They wanted to let people come in and do it kind of at their own pace.”

Rotheim said other online programs currently in use that might be comparable to what the AOC is looking for at the CVC are some National Park Service camping permit reservation systems and tour booking systems used at the White House and Washington Monument.

“There’s some other ones up in New York City that aren’t necessarily government, but big tourist landmarks like the Statue of Liberty,” she said. “Those are ones that are kind of on par and on scale. … Part of it is just volume of visitors, part of it is just visibility of the site. The Capitol building is one of the most recognized buildings in the world, and so the idea is that people show up with an expectation of an experience and they want that experience to occur.”

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