A Tale of Two Welcomes
Interpretive sites, like people and businesses, only have one chance to make a good first impression. Business folks are particularly interested in the “Welcome” because they want their “Welcome” to translate into your return visit (with more money of course). An article in the publication Insight suggests you only have 5 seconds to make a good first impression. Sydney Barrows talks about a welcome being more than the sum of its parts. Kevin Johnstone says attention to detail is the key to a successful welcome. The business world is definitely tuned into a good “Welcome”.
In the field of education, learning theory, and psychology you need only use the search words comfortable/safe/welcoming learning environment and you will find a plethora of articles and research. Almost every piece of teacher education material I have read comments on the need for a safe, welcoming classroom to help increase learning, improve cooperation between students, and provide a more positive emotional setting.
When designing a “Welcome” at an interpretive site it is useful for me to think about how I prepare to welcome guests into my own home. First, I make sure everyone has clear directions to the house. Next, I pick up any messes, vacuum and set out snacks and drinks. I shower and even put on clothes a cut above my “Tucson Everyday Casual”. A vase of fresh flowers might be on a table, the smell of what’s for dinner is in the air, background music is on, and several comfortable spaces for folks to sit and talk or stand and mingle are available. Usually I even put the pets in the bedroom until I am sure the guests are “dog friendly”. Finally, I am ready with a cheerful greeting at the front door and to find out what my guests’ needs are.
I was impressed with Bruce Temkin’s take on the welcoming experience in his post Don’t Neglect Your “Welcoming Experience” written after he and his wife visited a golf “university”. And though some of his thoughts spill over into the Dance Step of “Orientation” his assessment on the “Welcome” are spot-on.
“…As we drove up on the first day, we were greeted by one of the instructors who was standing in front of the parking lot. He showed us where to park, took our clubs, and showed us where to go next to sign-in. Wow — what a welcoming experience!
Let’s dissect what went right:
· We had no anxiety about what we needed to do.
· We received an immediate “personal” connection.
· We felt like the “University” was ready for us.
· We had a great feeling about the week.
Bruce goes into more detail about his arrival with his last two points focusing on the “Welcome”:
Set the tone right away. If you want your customers to think that you are helpful — establish that context right away. Good or bad — the Welcome Experience shapes how customers view every interaction after that moment. As they say: you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Provide feedback along the way. Don’t think of the Welcome Experience as a facade — it’s just the beginning to a continuous experience. Make sure that you provide customers with clear signals and insights as to what they should be doing next. The golf instructors didn’t just point to a building and say go there and register, they took us to the door and pointed to the registration table. We’ve all seen when this goes wrong. Think about a detour you were forced to take when you were driving — only to find that there were only a sparse set of detour signs along the way. Even if you were heading in the right direction, you still wanted to see a sign saying that you were on the correct detour route.
In Steve Van Matre’s book, Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience, “Welcome” is one of 15 Dance Steps for Interpretive Designers to use when developing experiences for visitors at preservation, collection and historic recognition sites. Here is a passage from the book on the “Welcome” Dance Step:
“Making people feel welcome sets the dance of experience in motion. If their first step is comfortable, they will be encouraged to join in more fully. This is so basic to good interpretation that it’s difficult to understand why it is so often overlooked. Why do some interpretive sites have so much trouble making their public entrances as welcoming as the entrances in their directors’ homes? Shouldn’t there be something inviting when their public guests arrive too – good sounds and smells drifting out, a warm or cool spot to sit? Visitor Centers should be places where people come to be greeted and feel looked after and fussed over. The cold formal efficiency of many public institutes does not serve their mission well at this point.” (Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience, p. 118)
At EID we think the “Welcome” is so important that the Interpretive Designers need to be involved at the beginning of a project -- right along with the architects, engineers, landscape and exhibit designers -- to help ensure a warm welcome, rather than an institutional greeting, as part of the experience.
When visiting an interpretive site, I pay attention to these five (5) things in a “Welcome”:
· Friendly greeting
· Low anxiety
· Comfortable surroundings
· A whiff of mission and essence(s)
· Encouragement to do more
Here is one site I visited along with a few comments.
Woodford Reserve Distillery – Versailles, Kentucky
Listed on the USA Registry of Historic Sites and Places, Woodford Reserve Distillery receives about 140,000 visitors a year at its 7200 sq. ft. visitor center. Someone definitely put some time and effort into designing the visitor’s “Welcome” during the renovation in 2014.
As you turn off the narrow country road that leads to the Woodford Reserve Distillery (WRD), the driveway does not go directly to the parking lot. Nope, you drive up to the visitor center, loop passed the building, and then head into the car park. What a simple and wonderful way to build anticipation and provide a sense of where to go next – lowered anxiety.
The WRD Visitor Center has a country home design rather than the typical fee collection station. Perched on top of a small rise, it beckons the visitor to head “this way” after leaving the car. The front walkway, steps and curved wall utilize native Kentucky limestone; a large front porch with white posts looks like a comfortable place to sit in a rocker and sip ice-tea. A small green lawn sets off the gray stone, and the flowers and bushes provide visual accent. It all appears very sensible, appropriate, lovely and welcoming – comfortable surroundings.
Most important, at the top of the second set of steps, a staff member is ready to greet visitors… “Welcome to Woodford Reserve? Are you here for a tour?” “Is this your first time here?” “Where are you all traveling from today?” This friendly greeting solidified my “good” first impression. Warm welcomes continued in the gift shop, the ticket area, with the shuttle driver, the interpretive guide, and even with the staff on breaks – friendly welcome.
I couldn’t help but think of a Charles Dickens quote (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) when I compared the WRD “Welcome” to the one I received at a museum in San Diego: unsmiling men in sports coats and ties barking out rules then waving us over to an unmanned desk with maps. It was almost as if they thought this would be a pretty good place to work if it weren’t for all these visitors.
Next to the entrance at the WRD Visitor Center is a plaque outlining the purpose of Woodford Reserve and immediately inside the door a simple sign with some helpful directions – a whiff of mission and essence(s), low anxiety.
After securing my ticket, it was time to wait for the tour. Hats off to the folks who designed the waiting area. The space was relaxing, enjoyable and had the feel of a living room. Comfortable arm chairs and real couches filled the space in front of an enclosed fireplace, and a few chairs were positioned with views out the windows.
If you would rather stand and wander around a bit there are “family” photographs and drawings to examine which show how the site has changed since the early 19th century. A piece of modern interpretive technology is also available to learn more about the bourbon making process – comfortable surroundings, a whiff of mission, encouragement to do more.
Want to shop a bit while waiting? No problem. Attached to the “living room” is the gift shop and almost every item, including the display equipment, is related to bourbon. Hungry? Well, just a few steps from the “living room” is the café with indoor seating or a lovely patio area with umbrellas for shade – more comfortable surroundings.
This kind of “Welcoming” atmosphere did not make waiting intolerable. It was comfortable, encouraged social interaction and provided a bit of a respite for those who might be weary from travel. I was rested, relaxed, and ready to go on the tour.
As for the five criteria at this site:
· Friendly greeting: a real person at the entrance, helpful comments, a warm welcome at each stage of the visit
· Low anxiety: simple, well-designed signage, clear directions…I knew where I was at all times
· Comfortable surroundings: homey atmosphere, comfortable seating, things to do while waiting, and others to interact with if I wanted to
· A whiff of mission and essence(s): certainly some on the sign at the front door, in the pictures on the wall and with the interpretive technology, but could have more
· Encouragement to do more: the opportunities were there with the interpretive technology, pictorial history on the wall, a calendar of upcoming events, along with books and articles in the gift shop
I only have one suggestion…Perhaps a staff member mingling in the “living room” area checking on folks would be a nice touch. This person could answer questions or demonstrate how to use the interpretive technology -- since on both visits I was the only one interacting with the device.
In Part 2 of “A Tale of Two Welcomes” we will head out west to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.