Barbara Hays has one of those faces that says, “Welcome!”
So it’s fitting the longtime Santa Fean and writer volunteers at the visitor information booth on the Plaza, directing tourists and locals to the nearest public restroom, nearby museums, eateries and banks where they can exchange foreign currency.
“We have answers to every question,” she said with a smile to a pair of visitors who were looking for public restrooms.
She said that’s the No. 1 question asked of the volunteers staffing the booth, which is run by the all-volunteer Bienvenidos, an independent division of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.
But the volunteers field a number of other inquiries, doing their best to make visitors feel at home in a city that may be very foreign to some.
“We are a tourism city first and foremost,” said Joella Mortillaro, president of the 101-member organization, which is celebrating its 60th year in the business of making people feel welcome.
“People like that personal interaction,” she said while standing outside the booth, located in the building that houses the First National 1870 bank on Lincoln Avenue. “That human contact is important. It sets us apart.
“We’re the concierge of Santa Fe.”
A group of women began Bienvenidos in the spring of 1961 for visitors at La Fonda on the Plaza, then still part of the Harvey House chain of hotels. Mortillaro said that group set up a table on the ground floor of the hotel and offered coffee, tea and information to visitors.
Originally known as the Women’s Division of the Chamber of Commerce, the organization opened its membership to include men in the 1970s, about the time the visitors booth moved to the streets of the Plaza.
Mortillaro said that was a “moving booth” that would relocate from corner to corner of the Plaza. In 1979, the booth found a permanent home at the bank building. In the mid-1990s, the group renamed itself Bienvenidos, which means welcome.
Mortillaro, who has served with Bienvenidos for a decade, said the group holds regular training sessions for new volunteers, teaching them about the city’s history, culture, tradition and offerings.
Hays and Al Wasilewski, who joined her in the booth on a recent Sunday, both underwent that training to prepare for their first season in the booth this year.
The booth usually opens in May and remains operational through October. But this year, because of the coronavirus threat, the booth did not open until July, Mortillaro said.
Wasilewski, a retiree, said he likes working at the booth because “this keeps me connected to the public. It’s fun to talk to people and share information. And if I don’t have it [answers], that’s what an iPhone is for.”
Booth volunteers have a handy FAQ pamphlet with a helpful index to provide information on an array of topics, from where to find hiking trails, cowboy boots, cigars, Spanish restaurants and even underwear.
Hays can joke that they have all the answers, but sometimes they don’t. Recently, a visitor asked her where the closest zip line was. There’s not one in Santa Fe.
Mortillaro, who sometimes staffs the booth, said one visitor stumped her by asking, “When do deer become elk?”
When two men from Louisville, Ky., came by the booth to ask about local attractions to visit, Mortillaro pulled out a map and ran over a list of options, including the staircase in the Loretto Chapel.
As the two men, who said they were passing through town on a rapid cross-country drive, began to walk away, she gave them a piece of unsolicited advice that she often provides.
“Drink a lot of water,” she said. “You’re at 7,200 feet elevation. Water!”