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Integrating Visitor Services and Interpretation

“Is it true that at the Constitutional Convention, Madison was against a Bill of Rights?”
“Why did Madison and Hamilton fall out after the convention and their collaboration on the Federalist Papers?”
What made Madison authorize the Second Bank of the United States in the early 1800’s after he had so been strongly against it in the 1790’s?

After taking tours, visitors at Montpelier often find themselves wondering about questions like these when they walk back to the Visitors Center (VC) and the café. Without a guide on hand to answer such queries, they will often ask the Visitor Services Associates they find there for the answers. Now, after the integration of the VC and Historic Interpreter staff, they are very likely to receive a thoughtful and accurate answer.

Many historic sites suffer from a divide between the Visitor Services staff and the Interpreters who give the tours and tell the stories, and in the past, Montpelier was no exception. In recognition of this issue, there were high level discussions about integrating those efforts for several years, but for a variety of reasons, those plans were never acted on. That all changed in the spring of 2017 when the Interpretive staff received an email inviting them to “Come Join the Visitor Services Team!”

Tearing Down the Wall

This was one of the issues that Elizabeth Chew, Montpelier’s new Vice President for Museum Programs was determined to resolve when she accepted her position in the summer of 2015. One of her most pressing and immediate goals was to enhance the visitor experience, starting with their first interaction at the VC. Originally, VC personnel sold both tour tickets and retail items, but were not expected to dig deep and study Madisonia, and had never been included in the training that guides participated in.

Elizabeth explained that at one time, the retail staff served as the VC front line and had really been given little content training. “They didn’t really know how to explain the different tours. They didn’t have much content knowledge, so we were really putting them in a very difficult position, and not providing our visitors with the best possible information and orientation. That’s the fault of management, not their fault.”

Elizabeth recognized that this was a glaring problem, and she heard it on both sides. Guides and VC staff didn’t feel like they were on the same team.  Why not integrate the two? After all, they really were working towards the same goal of creating that more satisfying visitor experience.

Haley Backlund, now Manager of Visitor Services, is a University of Virginia graduate with a major in history and a minor in religious studies, who went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in Museum Studies at John Hopkins University. Prior to joining the staff at Montpelier in 2015, Haley had worked as a supervisor in ticketing and group reservations at Monticello, so she already had substantial experience in the field.

Prior to the changeover, Haley explains that often, the prevailing attitude was that guides were “people on the hill who were super educated”, but Visitor Services just sold tickets. “That’s not something that just happens here. I saw that at Monticello, I heard about it at Mount Vernon, I think that’s just how it goes.”

Everyone’s Responsibility

Over the early winter of 2017 interpreters were offered the opportunity to train for visitor services and ticketing responsibilities, and vice versa. Haley explained that the goal was that “people who sell tickets would also give tours and people who give tours would sell tickets. Now, not only is the VC staff better informed on what the tours cover and how they operate, but it also better manages visitor expectations.

Of course, nobody likes change, and it took a while to integrate the two different departments, but the system is immeasurably improved. Both parts of the staff realize that customer service is everybody’s responsibility. It’s not just the job of the people at the VC to make people happy or fix things when they’re upset: “That goes for all of us.”

Today almost everyone who works at Montpelier’s Visitor Center is cross trained, so if we are surprised with unusually strong visitation, a VC Supervisor can add an unscheduled tour and can assign a visitor services person to conduct an ad hoc tour.

What’s been the effect of this integration? “I think its consistency”, Haley reflected. “The information given is better and it helps people better plan. We were always told that the tours take an hour, but none of us gave them. We didn’t necessarily know that sometimes it might go over because you’re behind a slow person, or that an hour-long outside tour may be more like 90 minutes because you’re walking a lot. It helps better set proper expectations.”

“When I first got hired, I went on each of the tours, but that was really the extent of the content training. I had 30 second sound bites to help sell the tours, but we didn’t participate in any of the week-long trainings that they have for interpreters. Now everybody participates in AIT (Advanced Interpreter Training) , so there is a much more expanded knowledge base available. In the old days, if someone came up with a question after a tour and we didn’t know the answer, we’d have to get on the phone, call the house supervisor, and take them away from their job. It was all much less efficient.”

Ever More Perfect

Later, during the summer of 2017, Montpelier arranged for the customer service pros from the famed Biltmore Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to come onsite and offer training and insight from one of the preeminent tourist destinations on the east coast. Some of the objectives of that training were to:

  • Distinguish ‘customer service’ from gracious hospitality, and recognize the true impact of gracious hospitality on guest relationships and brand reputations
  • Learn methods of creating a welcoming environment for guests through words and actions, and help create a fantastic first impression, and build the reputation for being a guest-centric organization.
  • Understand and anticipate the spoken and unspoken needs of guests, and to respond appropriately.
  • Recognize the significance of an internal spirit of service, seeking ways to serve each other every day, and creating a service-oriented culture.
  • Review the importance of methods for creating a positive, long lasting impression with guests that strengthen connections leading to loyalty and long-term relationships

Although for many of the staff, this kind of approach came naturally, it wasn’t universal, and part of Haley’s goal has been to make all team members realize that customer service is everyone’s responsibility.

Haley acknowledges that while the two jobs are similar, they’re not the same. There are different skills. “You have to convey what an hour long tour is in 30 seconds, and they’re probably only going to hear 10 seconds of what you said. You have to say it all over and over and over again while also dealing with the kid who needs to go to the bathroom and grandma who’s looking at Christmas ornaments.”

Close to two years later, the visitor’s experience is incalculably better than it had been. Integrating the two staffs has helped the Education and Visitor Engagement Department come just that much closer to realizing the goal of providing “a more perfect tour” for our guests.