Does yours rock?
We’ve all been there: the very sad information centre. The staff are surly, the brochures are gone, the washrooms are horrifying, and everything digital is out of order. [ref] If I had a dime for every out-of-order digital screen I’ve seen in a visitor centre, I’d… well… I’d have a lot of dimes. [/ref]
And I hope I can say we’ve all visited the opposite end of the spectrum. I did, recently. I walked into a clean, uncluttered, attractive information centre stocked with high-quality maps and brochures, and was greeted with a hearty hello. I chatted for a few minutes with a staffer who was knowledgable, funny, well-equipped to do her job, and really took time to assess what I was looking for. I walked out of there feeling like a million bucks.
So what is the difference between the two experiences? As an interpretive planner, I usually begin my projects with a visitor experience assessment, and I’ve recently turned my attention to all of the qualities that define a truly stellar (or deeply disappointing) info centre experience.
I’m not quite finished yet, but I wanted to share what I’ve been working on with you, gentle reader, in the hope that together we can come up with a somewhat-standard way of assessing our information centres.
So here are some criteria—with a big shout-out of gratitude to my friend and colleague Jennifer Barratt Parker who has more experience in whipping visitor centres into shape than anyone I know (though she probably wouldn’t put it that way.)
Each of these criteria is rated on a scale of 1 to 5.
- 5: Outstanding
- 4: Good
- 3: Meh
- 2: Not good
- 1: Awful
At the end, add up all the scores and divide the sum by the maximum possible points (in this case, 135.)
Here we go.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, as they say, and I’ve visited more than one information centre—usually in a city—where I couldn’t even find the entrance. Here’s what I’m looking for:
- Parking is accessible and driveways are safe. [ref] Not all info centres need to be drivable, of course. Some are on bike trails or walking plazas. There’s always an “n/a” field in my assessments.[/ref]
- The kiosk or centre is universally accessible.
- There are safe bike racks.
- The entrance is clear—I know where to go.
- Information on arrival is local and relevant, not advertising a distant destination or another corporate priority.
(I should elaborate on that last one. We’re seeing this problem more and more: an agency sees a visitor centre as a general marketing storefront, rather than a venue for a specific set of visitor services. So you walk up to a centre in one province, and the first thing you see is a bunch of imagery advertising a park or historic site in another province. Seriously. There’s a time and a place for launching visitors into a new wishing phase of the visitor experience cycle. It just isn’t while they’re actually busy in the arrival phase of their chosen visit.)
Anyway. Let’s walk inside.
- The interior is orderly and uncluttered, clean and cared for.
- Countertops are free of staff’s personal items. Office doors and closet doors are shut; cupboards and drawers, too.
- Temperatures, smells and air quality are all good.
- Washrooms are available and clean.
- Queues or lineups are orderly and fair; stanchions are in place where necessary.
I tend to place a lot of weight on the quality of the front-line information staff. I believe they make or break a visit; great information staff are worth their weight in gold. I’m pleased to report that, by and large, the people who choose to work in the information centre business are damn good at it. And it isn’t always easy.
- Staff are easily recognizable as staff. [ref] This one should be a no-brainer, but in the non-profit world sometimes volunteers aren’t even given a proper name tag. It makes for some really awkward moments.[/ref]
- Staff are available. [ref]And if they’re not, they need some retraining to shorten their average visit length… or they just need more staff. [/ref]
- Staff greet me personally.[ref] I have a particular visitor centre here on the west coast where I love to drop in to see how badly I can be treated. Generally the staff won’t even look up when you walk in. If you stand there long enough, you’ll get a passive-aggressive sigh, and someone will shuffle over.[/ref]
- Staff are knowledgeable.
- Staff make an effort to be helpful.
- Staff make an effort to understand what I need.
More than once I have tried to whip into an information centre to get the answer to a quick question—what time is the interpretive program, say—only to discover that the one staff member, currently busy, is the Keeper of All Knowledge. There is nothing printed, no brochures, no touch screens, nothing. I have to stand in line, or leave and figure things out on my own. I always choose the latter.
Digital touch screens, videos, or old-fashioned signs on the wall are so useful, and so much better than standing in a long lineup to ask someone a simple short question.
- The information I need is available even when staff are busy.
- Posters and notices have dates on them; everything is current and relevant.[ref] Another no-brainer—but so very rare to see.[/ref]
- Posters and notices look professional, not hand-scrawled or slapdash. [ref] I love that word.[/ref]
- Brochures and maps are in stock and easily reachable.
- Brochures and maps are useful and relevant.
- Digital displays are working, relevant and current.
- Interpretive exhibits are professional and in good repair.
Peripheral but important things
- There is something to interest children.
- I can purchase a snack or at least get a drink of water.
- Ambient music or sound is the right volume, and thematically appropriate.
- There are usable garbage cans.
- Emergency exits are evident and not blocked.
It all looks so simple, doesn’t it?
…but simple doesn’t always mean easy. There is absolutely nothing in the above criteria that should be difficult to achieve, and yet in my memory I don’t think I’ve never seen an information centre that would get full marks.
Where do we go wrong?
- We stop seeing the bad parts. If you work in a cluttered centre day after day, eventually it becomes normal. And when someone points it out to you, fixing it seems insurmountable. Sometimes I hear managers say things like, “Oh, yes we’ll fix it up next fiscal year.” But it’s something they could easily fix by four o’clock.
- Supervisors set the tone, always. Show me two apathetic information officers, and I’ll show you one absent supervisor.
- Somebody has to clean the place—as part of their job description. Yet when we build new information centres, we often neglect to budget properly for maintenance, and then expect busy information staff to do it.
- Somebody has to be held accountable for equipment that is out of order. Yet, more than once, I’ve inquired as to who is responsible for the task, and nobody can tell me. They genuinely don’t know.
So what am I missing?
That’s it—those are my evaluation criteria. Am I missing something? Please let me know in the comments below.
Great criteria, Don. They could be applied to museums too.
The one I would add would be: Personal cell phones are not being used by staff for personal phone calls when they are on duty.