The Visitor Experience Conference is one month away, taking place on Monday, October 6 at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Over the course of the next month, we will be chatting with a variety of people involved with the conference and taking a closer look at what this year’s conference has in store for attendees. To kick off this series, we had a chat with Nicole Krom, the Assistant Membership Manager at Longwood Gardens, who started the conference in 2012 when she was working in visitor services for the Fleisher Art Memorial.
Tell us about the origins of the Visitor Experience Conference. What sparked the idea?
I was attending the AAM conference in Houston, TX in 2011 – in the aftermath of the recession, many budget cuts across museum departments, etc. Sitting in the “75 Great Ideas in 75 Minutes” session, one of the last ideas presented was “ budget crises begets innovations in professional development.” Now, having been in the field at that time for several years, always searching for professional development opportunities for myself and my staff in the realm of Visitor Services (and rarely finding them), I thought how could the museums of Philadelphia come together to put on a day-long conference for folks that was geared towards this “forgotten department.” I roped in Tiffany Allen, a colleague from graduate school, who put me in touch with Dan Corti – they helped get this little idea off the ground. The three of us began planning and hosted our first “symposium” in 2012. Our peers in the field were very supportive of the idea and thankfully offered their help in presenting on a volunteer basis.
How has the Visitor Experience Conference evolved since its inception?
While we are very adamant about sticking to the roots of this conference and our target audience, there have been quite a few exciting developments over the years. This year we will welcome presenters and attendees from beyond Philadelphia, as far as Canada. We’ve gone from a “symposium” in year one to a “conference.” I think we were a little nervous to take on the word “conference” in the first year, so growing into that and feeling comfortable in presenting is as such, it a really wonderful feeling. We’ve moved with the industry trend in our naming, so we’ve gone from Visitor Services to Visitor Experience. The committee has (thankfully!) grown to accommodate our own growth. Our attendance increases each year and for the first time ever we have sponsors! In addition, we take the feedback we get from our attendees very seriously and try to implement as many ideas (within reason of course) as possible. While this is a conference, and does talk about big ideas, we hope that each attendee can go back to work the following day with a new idea to present or implement. We’ve designed this year’s conference to help with that and created peer moderated round-tables. My hope is for this to never get stale and always be working with industry trends, attendee needs, and really continuing to develop this into a locally and nationally recognized event.
What have been some highlights from the past few years?
My biggest highlight is seeing this little pebble of an idea really take off, and I have to thank the support of the museum community in Philadelphia for making that happen (and my husband!). We’ve received a lot of positive feedback knowing that we are fulfilling a need for professional development in this field. I still get super excited when I see registrations starting to come in and panelists agreeing to present, people truly believe in this and I feel honored that me and my committee get to make that happen. This year we were able to do a call for proposals for sessions and again, seeing the submissions come in from interested panelists in Philly and as far away as Boston and Ohio reinforces the craving people have for this material. With so many new things in store for the conference this year, I hope to add quite a bit to the highlight reel after October.
Ideally, what do you want attendees to take away from the conference?
A new idea, a new contact, an answer to a burning question, feeling like they’ve finally found a conference for them…any and all of the above would make me ecstatic. At the end of the day, Visitor Services and Visitor Experience work is an incredibly fun, engaging, and crucial position. My desire is that the folks working in those positions and ultimately their supervisors understand the importance of what we do and make the investment in their staff to develop them to take their organizations to the next level. I hope that they will see what people like Merilee Mostov are doing and start taking small risks of their own or how Jessica Sharpe is transforming what Visitor Operations looks like at traditional art museums. But, there will be lots of take-aways, so if at the end of the day, they just see potential, or use us as a resource, one of our goals is simply to bring awareness to all that is Visitor Experience.
The Philadelphia Visitor Experience Conference takes place from 9AM to 4PM on Monday, October 6 at the Chemical Heritage Foundation at 315 Chestnut St. For more information about the conference, check out our write up here and check back with phillyemp.com to find out more about the EMP-sponsored happy hour immediately following the conference.