Sunday, October 24, 1999

Art Museum uses Disney as marketing model

Customer is center in concept

Enquirer contributor

        Determined to attract more visitors at its historic gallery, Cincinnati Art Museum officials are turning to the world's most famous mouse for help.

        Throughout this decade, leaders inside the 103-year-old museum in Eden Park have watched nervously as competition in the Tristate's leisure entertainment market has skyrocketed.

        Paramount's Kings Island has expanded. Gambling riverboats in Southeastern Indiana have arrived. So, too, has the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Several multiscreen theaters have popped up in the suburbs. And rival museums have intensified their marketing efforts.

        A counterattack was drawn: To be successful, the museum must provide an engaging, enjoyable experience that will make visitors want to come back and bring friends.

        Enter Mickey Mouse.

        Working from a model developed by Disney, the art museum has placed visitor satisfaction at the top of its list of goals. The Disney-generated customer satisfaction program has been tailored specifically to help the museum improve the quality of its visitors' experiences.

        “We're putting the customer at the center rather than the (art) object,” said Sheila Hunt, who is the museum's first visitor satisfaction coordinator.

        It's all about running the museum more like a business, officials said.

        “We're not taking anything away from the collections,” said Alissa Cone, marketing and public relations coordinator for the museum.

        Rather, staff members and volunteers are trying to see the museum from their visitors' perspective.

        “We're asking ourselves: What does the visitor want?” said Ms. Hunt.

        In a process that began in December 1998, with focus groups, museum staff and volunteers are coming up with a variety of answers to that question.

        “In our survey groups, we discovered that many people didn't know where we were located. So our new logo includes the statement, "Great Art in Eden Park,'” said Anita Ellis, the museum's acting director.

        Some other tangible changes include easier-to-read street signs to help visitors find the museum and a simpler museum map to guide visitors to the exhibits they want to see.

        But the foundation of Disney's visitor satisfaction model is people.

        “At Disney World, you can ask anyone — a maintenance worker, a bus driver, anyone — a question, and they either know the answer or they'll find out for you,” Ms. Hunt told museum personnel during a training session.

        A $50,000 grant from Fidelity Charitable Trusts supports the museum's initial visitor satisfaction initiatives. Along with conducting the focus groups and sending eight staffers to study Disney World operations in Orlando, the museum crafted a new mission statement.

        Every aspect of the visitor satisfaction program reinforces the mission statement, which begins: “We will actively engage a diverse and growing audience with great art for their enrichment and enjoyment.“

        In May, Ms. Hunt was hired for the new post of visitor satisfaction coordinator. She formerly conducted development training for Fifth Third Bank.

        Combining her business background and her understanding of the Disney approach, Ms. Hunt is preparing museum staffers to take personal responsibility for the quality of their visitors' experiences. Every aspect of the training pro gram promotes the interaction of personnel from different departments.

        If employees resist attending the sessions, saying they never meet the public, Ms. Hunt points out that every employee encounters other employees.

        “Those are your internal visitors,” she said. “You should treat an internal visitor as you would an external visitor.

        “The ultimate goal is to serve our community better,” said Ms. Ellis, pointing out that small things can make a big difference.

        “Helping a visitor with the map when you see they're having trouble. Smiling. We thought the greater the art we had, the more people would come to see it. Now we realize that people will be more likely to come back to the museum if they have a pleasant experience with people rather than a great experience with art.”

        Now, on the reverse of every museum employee's name badge is the statement: “Ex ceed visitor expectations. Welcome. Assist. Delight.”

        “If you smile and greet (visitors) coming in, I think they will feel comfortable,” said Kim Crowley, a member of the security staff. “It's a matter of body language, of being approachable.“

        While museums everywhere are trying to become more visitor-friendly, the Cincinnati Art Museum believes its approach is unique.

        “After conducting phone research on visitor satisfaction initiatives with 20 other leading U.S. museums, it was clear that we are the only museum developing such a thorough, extensive program,” Ms. Hunt said. “In fact, several museums have asked me for a copy of our plan.”

        Visitor feedback has been positive. Recently, a museum supporter stopped Ms. Ellis and said, “You know, everyone at the museum seems much happier now. They're all smiling.”

        Jo Borack, a Wyoming resident who has visited the museum since childhood, has noticed the changes.

        “I was very impressed with the friendliness,” she said after a recent visit.

        “Guards used to be rather intimidating. Now they anticipate visitor needs and come up to see if they can help. There are also more people at the front desk when you come in. When I took my grandchildren to the museum, everyone was so good to them, even when they ran around a little bit and made noise.”


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