After several months of planning, a crowd of museum professionals converged on the Chemical Heritage Foundation this past Monday for the 2014 Visitor Experience Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was the shift in many cultural institutions from visitor services to visitor engagement or visitor experience. With a keynote address, signature session, six sessions and eight roundtable discussions to chose from, attendees were able to take ideas from the conference to implement in their institutions.
Keynote: Moving Beyond the Transaction
Conference committee chair welcomed attendees to the third annual Visitor Experience Conference and introduced keynote speaker Jessica Sharpe, Director of Visitor Operations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sharpe’s session on Visitor Services as the go-to department at last year’s conference was so popular that the conference committee asked her to deliver the keynote address this year (her third with the conference). Sharpe’s address was an excellent way to begin the conference and set the tone for the rest of the day. Sharpe gave a brief bio to begin with, mentioning that she obtained a degree in hospitality and worked in hotel management prior to moving into the museum realm. This highlights the importance of a strong guest service background for those who want to move up in their museum careers. Sharpe went on to discuss the role of visitor services in the museum. According to Sharpe, the front line staff builds on the promise of a great experience, usually set forth by marketing, by creating a feeling of welcome, serving as the face of the institution, and curating positive memorable experiences for guests. Sharpe also challenged the notion that anyone can do the job of the front line staff, acknowledging that the job is not rocket science, but pointing out that it takes a special kind of individual to deliver the same information repeatedly in a friendly and engaging manner. Building on that, Sharpe suggested that institutions should put forth a set of guidelines for all museum staff, regardless of whether or not their position requires guest interaction, on the best ways in which staff should interact with visitors to the institution. This idea would come up again during the afternoon’s signature session.
My takeaway from this session: The visitor experience starts long before a visitor arrives, and it is our job to build on the experience they have already had in the most positive way possible.
Power in Numbers
Following the keynote address, attendees had the choice of joining Dan Corti of the Barnes Foundation’s chat about dealing with difficult visitors or Mckey Maley of the Franklin Institute’s discussion about creating a positive experience for adult learners. Having attended Corti’s sessions in the prior two years, I elected to sit in on Maley’s session this year. Maley kicked off his morning session with a bang, having attendees play a couple of ice-breaking games he uses when training adults who volunteer at the Franklin Institute. Maley continued the interactive nature of the session by getting attendees involved in a discussion about why adults choose to volunteer at museums, and what they are looking for when they volunteer. Answers ranged from a passion for the mission to a desire for free admission to just looking for something to do, and Maley acknowledged the difficulty of serving these different audiences. Maley then moved on to utilizing story-telling in his training, commenting that it has been effective in communicating ideas to adult learners who then use the same ideas when interacting with visitors. I had to duck out of the session early to prepare for the afternoon signature session, so look for an interview with Maley here at phillyemp.com for more information about his session.
My takeaway from this session: Volunteers and floor staff need cross-training because most guests do not distinguish between departments when they see someone wearing a museum uniform or name badge on the museum floor.
Signature Session: Creating Culture – A Focus on the Visitor Experience
Last Friday afternoon, it was confirmed that Merilee Mostov would be unable to make the trip to Philadelphia for the conference. As we (the conference planning committee) scrambled for a way to fill the gaping hole in our schedule, I suggested Hillary Olson, the Director of Integrated Programming at the Franklin Institute. I had heard a lot about Olson’s attempts to work on interdepartmental training, focusing on experiences, and building corporate culture at TFI, all things I had been working on last year at Please Touch Museum, and felt that she would be the ideal addition to our lineup of speakers. As Olson humorously recalled at the beginning of her session, I phoned on Friday and she agreed to present with less than three days’ notice.
Olson began her presentation with a familiar activity which involved sitting, standing, singing, and paying attention to cues. The point was to illustrate that everyone in the room just had the same experience, but not everyone felt the same way about the experience. From there, Olson went on to describe her experience in fostering change at the Franklin Institute, specifically how TFI staff interacts with visitors. Olson’s goal was to get staff from a variety of departments in a room together to come up with what they thought the visitor experience should be, and then brainstorm ideas and ways to implement them. What the staff came up with ended up being in line with guest services best practices; in particular the top seven Olson shared with attendees mirrored the Disney seven service guidelines. Olson added that the front line staff was thrilled to be included and have their opinions heard and because of that, they are now more engaged in their work, leading to a better experience for the visitors.
My takeaway from this session: Organizational culture and interdepartmental training is crucial to getting all staff on the same page (something we’ve written about before)
Unfortunately I was unable to dedicate a lot of time to the afternoon sessions, but we will have interviews with attendees here on the website in coming weeks to fill in the blanks of what I missed. The afternoon sessions were followed by roundtable discussions back in the main hall. I hosted a chat about adapting the Disney guest service model for your museum, which ended up echoing a lot of what was discussed in Sharpe’s keynote and Olson’s session. Based on those presentations and the discussion at my table, I will flesh out a more thorough guide to share at a later date.
Once the conference concluded, attendees retired to Revolution House for a fun happy hour and a rousing round of Museum Quizzo. The trivia game was very popular, and will likely be a feature of future EMP Happy Hours. A special congratulations to Team Not Drunk Enough, who, with representatives from the National Museum of American Jewish History, Mercer Museum, University of the Arts, and Wells Fargo History Museum, won the Quizzo competition. Keep tabs on phillyemp.com in coming weeks for interviews with presenters and attendees about the conference and for upcoming events to help you broaden your network!