Giving people time and space to study the art, music, or collection they are working alongside arms them with the knowledge to speak and add that little extra interpretation that could be the cherry on the cake to someone’s visit
The phrase “but what about visitor experience?” is music to my ears, and thankfully one I’ve heard countless times since reopening. Years ago it was often a struggle to get visitor experience discussed at all, and it would often be the final agenda item with only a couple of minutes remaining at the end of the meeting. Thankfully that’s no longer the case. The pandemic has put the visitor at the heart of every conversation, and in turn visitor experience is now front and centre and crucial to operational planning.
The question of visitor safety and making people feel totally comfortable as they emerge from lockdown has been one we’ve grappled with in depth. There was mystery around how visitors might behave, react and respond, and as a sector we turned to each other for ideas and reassurance. There was a feeling that it would be only about one way systems and arrival times and, of course, toilets. And while these have been major themes in practice the return of visitors to our sites has also been about joy and human connection. I remember saying early on during a conversation about covid guidelines that we mustn’t also forget that the experience should still be fun. Otherwise what’s the point?
Visitors are now craving human discussion more than ever, and this is where our staff can finally come into their own and provide an experience, rather than a service
There have been many times visitors have told us that this is the first time they’ve been out anywhere this year, and the decision to come was based on their trust in us and the knowledge that staff would look after them, providing that escapism we all need. We recognise that our front of house staff are the face of the organisation, and often the only human interaction a person will ever have with us. So it really isn’t just about reminding someone to wear a mask. It’s about supporting and encouraging staff to ask questions and take the time to have meaningful conversations with visitors about what they are experiencing. This is particularly important when people visit alone and want to have that moment to share a thought or response. Face to face interaction has been scarce. Visitors are now craving human discussion more than ever, and this is where our staff can finally come into their own and provide an experience, rather than a service.
Having fluidity in a role keeps the week exciting but also means you have the same group of enthusiastic engaged people across all of the touchpoints
This leads to the question of how do we now develop these teams to be equipped to take up their newly evolved position? Giving people time and space to study the art, music, or collection they are working alongside arms them with the knowledge to speak and add that little extra interpretation that could be the cherry on the cake to someone’s visit. Recruiting people for their ability to talk and empathise, rather than for previous experience or knowledge of the sector helps to build a team of humans who will deliver the experience. It’s relatively easy to teach someone how to do the job. What’s tougher is teaching someone how to be a brilliant communicator so if they already have that skill then the job’s half done. Without forgetting that brilliant humans can be found in all sorts of places, not just the ones who happen to see an advert on your website. They are in your local communities and they are your current visitors. They are people who have already had a career, or ones who are just leaving school. Reach out and make it easy for people to know you are recruiting and make the process simple and as welcoming as how you would want them to welcome your visitors.
Finding the flexibility you can in how the team works and what their job descriptions allow them to do also helps in terms of keeping the team engaged, and providing the agility to adapt to a changing environment. Could the same person who invigilates, also lead a tour? Perhaps with some training they could also sell a ticket, or work in the shop. They’ll still be a tour guide with all of the knowledge and enthusiasm for the exhibition even when they are selling a guide book. Having that fluidity in a role keeps the week exciting but also means you have the same group of enthusiastic engaged people across all of the touchpoints. Then find ways that they can branch out even further. Visitor experience is an in-house army of highly capable people who can also be of huge support to other departments. They are your audience researchers, your curatorial assistants, your future managers.
These are the people who know your visitors the best, so take the time to listen to their feedback, ideas, and their own worries. They are at the sharp end of our visitor’s concerns, so ensuring we are supporting our staff wellbeing is vital and will mean that they feel able to deal with the concerns of others, handle the more challenging moments, and have plenty of those fantastic interactions that have been much missed recently.