Rachel Mackay's new book on delivering the visitor experience in museums
There’s nothing worse than a poor welcome. Whether that be at a pub, a restaurant, and yes, definitely at a museum. If you don’t enjoy your experience of visiting, at best you’ll be reluctant to return. At worse, you never will — and you’ll tell everyone you know to do the same (and you’ll tell everyone you don’t know the via Trip Advisor).
Despite this, the visitor experience at museums, galleries and heritage sites, is — bizarrely — overlooked. It receives less academic attention, and can regularly be an afterthought by all levels of an organisation. But a new book hopes to curtail this organisational madness.
Rachel Mackay — currently Head of Hampton Court Palace — has written a trailblazing new publication called Delivering the Visitor Experience* which aims to give this aspect of museums the attention it deserves. It is one of the first complete guides on what makes a good visitor experience and how to enhance it.
The book covers everything: from opening a new visitor offer and building a team, to future planning and strategies for development. It draws from theories from practitioners and academics, arguing that by examining issues such as motivation and relevance, museum operators can start to truly put themselves in their visitors’ shoes.
The days of grumpy guards shouting at people “DO NOT TOUCH” are long gone. And Rachel’s book is here to show everyone working in museums how to build visitor experiences that are impactful, and how it benefits all areas of an organisation (including the bottom line). Above all, it wants its readers to have the tools to give visitors the stellar welcome they deserve.
So here I chat to Rachel about the book, how the visitor experience has radically changed in recent years, and how to take the first steps in turning your venue’s visitor experience from unwelcoming to unforgettable.
Hello Rachel. So firstly: why a book on the visitor experience?
My book is part of a series called museum and gallery essentials, and to me, there’s nothing more essential in our sector than delivering a great visitor experience. Despite this, it’s severely under-represented in museum and heritage literature — I couldn’t find any other books devoted to it when I was doing my research. I ended up writing the book that I wanted to read when I was starting out.
Why does the visitor experience get such little attention, when in many ways, museums and galleries are all built around it?
I suppose it’s because for years, museum professionals considered it a by-product of other elements of the museum visit, such as the exhibition content, or the ticketing journey. There are hundreds of books on exhibitions and ticketing, but the understanding of that holistic experience — that unique convergence of the visitor and your offer and what results from it — seems to be newer. It’s only now beginning to be regarded as a specialism along with other areas of museum work.
I think the other reason is that whilst visitor experience is a specialism, it’s also by definition frustratingly broad, covering as it does every aspect of the museum visit. As visitor experience professionals, were are required to care about everything.
How has the visitor experience changed over the past 20 years?
I write in the book about going to the Museums Association (MA) conference in 2010 and there being nothing on the agenda about visitor experience or front of house (FOH) staff. I’m glad to say that things have really moved on — now the MA is involved in the FOH Charter for Change and visitor experience features prominently on conference agendas.
The role of the individual has changed as well; the image of the officious security warder has faded, and we now ask our front facing teams to do the opposite — welcome people in and engage them with our stories rather than try and keep them out! FOH staff no longer merely facilitate the museum experience; they are the most important part of it.
Which venues do you think have nailed the visitor experience really well?
My book is full of case studies of visitor experience best practice. Many of them are focussed on the people that deliver the visitor experience, because a theme of the book is that happy team members equal happy visitors. The Scotch Whisky experience were inspirational in how they manage and motivate their team; re-organising the business calendar to support staff engagement, being really transparent in decision making and taking a real values-based approach to professional development.
I also loved how Margate Caves approached recruitment — they deliberately set out to attract people from the local community because they valued enthusiasm and local knowledge. They knew that history and stories can be taught, and so emphasised the people skills instead. They designed a recruitment process to get the best out of their future team.
And which venues are doing it poorly?
The answer to this is the opposite to the above; anywhere that doesn’t nurture a positive culture of staff engagement will find it really shows in the visitor experience. In the book, I really advise against large scale outsourcing of engagement teams, which we saw a lot of during the last recession. Your FOH teams are the best advertisement there is for your museum brand: don’t make them feel like they aren’t part of the team. The lack of engagement with those crucial staff members will make itself felt on the museum floor!
Is it right that so many museums and galleries rely on volunteers for their visitor welcome?
Volunteers can be a really important part of the visitor experience. In my book, I talk about Verdant Works in Dundee, where people who used to work in the jute mills share their experience with visitors. That’s such added value to the visit! Where I think it doesn’t work as well is when you go in with a view that volunteers are free labour. For one thing, it isn’t right: visitor experience staff are professionals, and if their roles are critical to operating, they should be paid. It’s also a false economy.
Managing volunteers takes work and effort and can be time intensive. The key is to have a strategy to why and how you will be using volunteers; take the time to think it through and ask yourself critical questions before embarking on the journey.
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How does the visitor experience help with the bottom line?
The visitor experience encompasses everything that happens in the visit and that includes all commercial activity such as the gift shop, the cafe, donations or added value extras like guided tours. The key is to not see these elements as separate to the experience.
A trip to the museum gift shop, for example, can really enhance a visit, providing opportunities for memory making. The book is full of examples where digging into the visitor experience work has provided opportunity to increase income as well as improve the experience, from developing new tours for Kew Palace to selecting a new ticketing and e-commerce platform for the Stained Glass Museum.
You're now Head of Hampton Court Palace. How do you think your own experiences of working front of house in your early years helps in this role?
My first experiences in museums were working front of house in catering, which I think taught me an awful lot about customer service, time management, multi-tasking, teamwork and staying calm under pressure. I’ve also worked front of house in museum shops, admissions and hosting. It has really helped me in later roles — particularly the broad role I have now — to have that range of experience of how it works on the ground. When I ask teams to do something, it’s nothing I haven’t done myself. I still enjoy going onto the floor and interacting with visitors, and I think it’s really important for my role that I do that.
In the book, I advocate for senior managers taking part in ‘back to the floor’ schemes — it’s an invaluable experience.
What are some of the unique visitor experience challenges at Hampton Court Palace?
There’s such a lot going on at Hampton Court, so it really is that coordination piece I talk about in the book. Visitor experience professionals are well placed within the museum structure to help facilitate different departments delivering what they need to, all the while keeping the visitor at the heart of every decision made.
With large scale events like jousting and festivals, feature film shoots, a huge schools programme and a thriving events business, that skill is really critical at Hampton Court!
If someone reading this works at a museum or heritage site and is wondering how to improve the visitor experience at their venue, what are the most important things they need to consider?
It always comes back to people. Know your audience, and know your staff. How well can you utilise that knowledge to drive improvement?
One way to audit your own organisation is to try a Visitor Journey Mapping exercise, which I explain in the book. Not only does this help you get into the mindset of your visitor, it’s a great way to bring your team along with you as you consider what your next steps will be.
Finally, what does the future hold for the visitor experience?
To a certain extent, that’s up to you! In the last section of the book, I really encourage visitor experience managers to encourage innovation in their teams; I’m a firm believer that the teams closest to the visitors will also have the best ideas to help them, it’s just that often we lack the space and time to let those ideas breathe.
As devastating to the sector as it was, Covid-19 also showed us how fantastically adaptive visitor experience teams can be. As expectations and technologies change, the sector will continue to adapt. And as ever, bringing our people along with us will be key to success.
‘Delivering the Visitor Experience' by Rachel Mackay and published by Facet Publishing is available now. Buy your copy here.*
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