Last winter I taught skiing at Heavenly Ski Area in Tahoe. Over and over I thought “museums need to learn they are in the hospitality business, not the education business”. I think I learned more about museum customer service as a ski instructor than I ever learned as a staff member at a museum. My priorities in order of importance:
1. Safety - Make sure no one gets hurt, and the kids are safely returned to their care giver
2. Fun – That the kids have a good experience and want to come back and ski again
3. Learning – Learn skills related to skiing
You could use the exact same priorities for any museum, Safety, Fun and Learning in that order. Most museums feel they are in the “education business”, some museums feel they are in the business of protecting the objects of their collection (“everything would be great if it wasn’t for those pesty visitors”). I believe museums are in the hospitality business. Visitors first and for most need to have a good time. As an employee of a ski area, it was drilled into me that the customer comes first, we are helping the visitor “have an experience of a life time”. This is not a typical museum staff attitude, more often staff of museums are focused inwards (thinking about the collection, the museum politics and the visitor last). It is often lost on museum staff that the visitor, made plans to visit the museum, got dressed for the occasion, drove to the museum, paid admission all before coming through the front door. Welcome them, thank them, it is the staff’s job to make their day special.
1. The power of the uniform – As a member of the museum staff you are in a privileged position of responsibility, people look up to you and value your opinion . That is a big responsibility, take it seriously. If you don’t know the answer to a question, go find out and get back to the visitor. Museums don’t like paying for uniforms. Museum staff don’t like wearing uniforms. You are there as an expert, look the part and be easily identified as an expert.
2. Training – As a first year ski instructor I went through three days of customer service training in a classroom (paid minimum wage), a week of “on the snow” training and a three days of testing. I was often shadowed by more experienced instructors and given feedback and advice. If I wanted to advance, there are opportunities for additional training at my own expense but tied to tiers of pay increases. I received more training as a part time ski instructor than I ever received as a staff member at a museum.
3. Be selective of staff – Heavenly Ski area is one of the best ski areas in the world. I was lucky to work there and that is the attitude of the management, they only want the very best. Often the best ski instructors are not great skiers but great teachers. Only hire the very best.
4. Tiers of certification – From my first day of training I knew how much I would be making (I also knew how much everybody else was making). If I wanted to make more money, I could gain additional training with pay raises tied to the training (the training is at my own expense).
5. National organizational participation – As a first year instructor I was encouraged to join the national organization and participate at my own expense. Most museum staff only participate in American Association of Museums if the museum pays. I find it inexcusable that indivuals can not join the Association of Science Technology Centers. How do you expect to advance the field if you can’t join the national organization?
6. Standardization and testing - All ski instructors are judged by the same criteria and tested on their abilities to present the information.
7. Value diversity – I taught kids from all over the world. I needed to meet the kids where they were, some are athletic, some are overweight, some English is not their first language. As an instructor I needed to lead the group, to help each other and learn from those who are different.
8. Systems, Boots and reservations – Christmas week we taught hundreds of kids a day. There were well established systems for equipment and reservations. Most museums are good with school group lunchs and getting kids on and off buses. Museums are less good at programs and floor staff interaction with visitors.
9. Build on individuality – I often taught shy skiers. Most first priority would be to learn about them, what are their interets? Once trust was established, we could start to ski, without trust you can’t teach.
10. Clear expectations – I knew what was expected of me; kids to understand their equipment, be comfortable with their equipment, learn basic skills and practice their skills. My first day working at a Science Center I was sent out on the exhibit floor with no expectations. I was there to answer questions. I was not equipped to answer questions about a “cloud chamber“, but there I was trying to explain a cloud chamber, that is unfair to the vistor.
11. Share the passion – I am passionate about museums and skiing, I enjoy sharing those passions with others. Only hire staff who are passionate, Art, Science, History, Zoology, find people who are passionate and have them share their passion with the visitor.
12. Full circle - Train, evaluate and feedback. I knew I was to be given training, would be evaluated on my ability to present the information and would be given feedback.
13. Independent Contractor Attitude - I was encouraged to create my own systems and plans for teaching. I was given guidelines, but then given the freedom to create my own lesson plans, my own teaching props and my own way of interacting with students.
14. On the hook, invited back? – Keep your staff “on the hook”. At the end of the season, I am not sure if I will be hired back, next season. Do the same with your museum staff, you only want staff at their best. Continue to test them and let them know if they are not performing at their best they will not be brought back.
15. Check your Equipment Daily – As a ski instructor we were required to have annual physicals, annual equipment checks and we were expected to check our own equipment at the start of every day. Years ago I had a disagreement with an architect of a new museum. The architect wanted a separate entrance for the museum staff, I wanted the museum staff to walk through the front door every day. Make sure you can do everything you are asking your staff, some museums require that all staff work on the floor at least once a month, a great idea. If you are not on the exhibition floor you can’t “check your equipment”. Get in the habit of picking up trash in the museum.