Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences

How to order the Opening Doors DVD

By Ken Bubp and Dave Allison

Engagement is a word of universal significance for those of us seeking to attract guests, whether a zoo, a museum or a theme park. At Conner Prairie, an outdoor immersion history museum near Indianapolis, we have long been searching for ways to make this often elusive engagement idea—where guests connect with our experiences in a deep, meaningful and enjoyable way—a living, daily reality. Visitor research has played a catalytic role in our efforts to transform the guest experience.

Beginning in 2000, Conner Prairie embarked on a series of in-depth, anthropological learning research studies to discover how much guests were actually learning, and how they were learning, when they visited the museum. We recorded guest visits with either audio alone or audio and video, transcribed the research data, and analyzed those transcriptions for learning indicators and clues to how guests and interpreters interacted. At the same time, we began to systematically collect and distribute to staff other guest feedback, including comment cards, post-visit interviews and surveys. This initial research served as a resource for staff across the institution, but was particularly applicable to the work of the Museum Programs Division.

The studies demonstrated one stark finding: that the museum's daily program of living history interpretation was not reaching its potential. To be certain, we had received positive comments from people who enjoyed their visit. However, the research gave us all manner of signs that we were not facilitating guest experiences with the past in a way that maximized learning. Guests were not having consistently high-quality experiences in Conner Prairie's historic areas. Those reviewing the research plainly saw that we needed to dramatically change the way we were delivering experiences on a daily basis. Adding to our sense of urgency in pursuing change was the now widely-reported fact that living history museums across the country were seeing significant on-going declines in their attendance. In mid-2002, managers and senior administrators at Conner Prairie determined that they would take action on this research.

We faced sizable challenges in redesigning how we delivered experiences and retraining staff to see their work in fundamentally different ways. We borrowed any good ideas we could find, whether they were from theme parks, science museums or retail clothing operations. We developed new training programs. We restructured how we deployed staff on a daily basis. We engaged in a far-ranging institutional conversation about what it meant to put guests in the center. In the end, we created the approach to delivering great guest experiences we call Opening Doors.

We knew that change of this magnitude was not possible merely by issuing a directive from management. Instead, it would require a change of culture within the institution. This cultural change related particularly to the Museum Programs Division, which was responsible for all aspects of delivering learning experiences for guests. We tasked a small team of management staff and front-line interpreters to determine what changes to make to interpretive philosophy, front-line staff training and management structure. Over the course of nearly one year, this team studied guest feedback, engaged in new thinking about how to provide the highest quality guest experience, and crafted a change in direction for the Programs Division, and indeed the museum as a whole. We adopted as our target the following vision, "Conner Prairie will set a new standard for living history interpretation. We will do this by establishing engagement as an essential component of good interpretation."

The result was the Opening Doors Visitor Engagement Initiative. This title communicated to the rest of the staff at Conner Prairie that we, as interpreters, would take the lead in opening doors to the past for our guests. We were to be ambassadors to the past and facilitators of learning experiences, and not simply live versions of bloated text panels that forced guests to learn by passive listening. We were to be active engagers and not simply stage actors. We were to adapt to how different guests learned and what they were interested in, not simply recite the same rote information in the same way to everyone who came by. This method of interpreting the past was a much different way of approaching things for the vast majority of our interpretive staff. While none of them found it entirely foreign, these expectations stood in contrast to the approach we had been taking for our thirty years of accumulated institutional experience of living history interpretation. And compared with the approach of most other living history museums, ours is a categorically different perspective on planning, administering, overseeing and delivering learning experiences for guests.

The new emphasis on serving our visitors soon began to influence the museum's culture. Staff started to realize that the reason we exist is because people choose to spend their time and money with us. The concept that visitor's needs should come first became inculcated into Conner Prairie's culture. Shortly after Opening Doors started, we began referring to the visiting public as our "guests" instead of "visitors." This change, though seemingly cosmetic, helped to solidify the idea that we should be looking to provide a comfortable and enjoyable experience to the people who choose to spend their time and money at our museum.

Conner Prairie's previous mission statement read, "Conner Prairie, an Earlham museum, will serve as a local, regional, and national center for research and education about the lives, times, attitudes and values of early 19th-century settlers in the Old Northwest Territory, based on the Indiana experience. In its efforts to serve its various constituencies, Conner Prairie will seek to provide an overall experience of quality, presented in an entertaining manner." This statement is weighted toward content and educational goals. The new mission statement, "Conner Prairie inspires curiosity and fosters learning about Indiana's past by providing engaging, individualized, and unique experiences," is clearly influenced by the Opening Doors exhortation to focus on guest needs. Effective non-profits must have a clear mission, and this change helped to focus our efforts toward providing exceptional experiences to our guests.

Opening Doors also brought about a change to our training structure. Staff training prior to the initiative was very heavily weighted to content sessions. Opening Doors inaugurated a system that used three primary categories: operations, content and communication skills. Each interpreter's training requirement for the year was then split evenly across these three categories. This balanced approach helped interpreters focus on aspects of the guest experience that diverged from solely the minutiae of life in the nineteenth century. In addition to this change, the program gave a boost to daily training and evaluation with the implementation of a manager-for-the-day, entitled Engagement Person in Charge. This person evaluated how well interpreters fulfilled the goals of Opening Doors and assisted them in working to improve their communication skills.

Then we examined our work to see if it met the ultimate test—our guests. And respond they did. Subsequent learning research has shown an impressive increase in both guest learning and satisfaction. Once staff began to hear from guests the impact of their experience at the museum, the significance of Opening Doors became even greater. Our greatest asset throughout the process was the encouraging words of our constituents and other museum professionals.

In a 2005 email to Conner Prairie staff, one guest noted, "We were so impressed at how much it had changed for the better since we last visited when our daughter was little. What impressed us most was how much there was for us to do! The last time we only watched everyone work but this time we were allowed to participate in everything. We spent most of the time in the Lenape village and the Farmhouse. We got to do everything."

Following his visit, Roy Underhill, an expert in the field of interpretation (he has been affiliated with Colonial Williamsburg for many years) and the star of the PBS show The Woodwright's Shop noted, "I've watched the Opening Doors program make a profound change to the learning environment at Conner Prairie. It's rare in that it is a program that grew from actually listening to the visitors and acting on the research. Opening Doors honors the intelligence of the visitors and gives them engaging and meaningful work to do in the learning experience. It has created a new model for living history interpretation at a time when it's desperately needed. Conner Prairie's willingness to follow the visitor's needs has made them the new leaders in living history."

Along the way, we developed a training resource to help other free-choice learning organizations like zoos, history museums and science centers better engage their guests through staff interaction. We call it Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences. It includes a 90-minute DVD and an interactive CD-ROM with nearly three dozen training exercises. Initial feedback about the usefulness of this resource from the field has been encouraging.

In the process of really listening to what our guests were saying, we created a new path for the museum. But we know we can't rest on our laurels. In the dynamic universe of changing guest expectations, Conner Prairie is embarking on a strategic planning process that takes into account the guest voice and the lessons that we learned from Opening Doors. Through this effort we will continue to look for ways to listen to our guests, to improve our products, and to deliver great guest experiences.

Bubp, Ken and Dave Allison. "Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences." AASLH History News, Spring 2007, p. 20-23.

Opening Doors DVD
To order your copy of Opening Doors, please call the Conner Prairie Store at 317.776.6000 ext. 389, or email Becky Brown at Thank you!