Twenty Minute Tour – What Not to Do


Good day! Recently I was reminded how docents affect the success of historic homes, museums and tours, in general. One of the historic homes in California advertises a picnic (you bring your own) and a twenty minute tour of the house. With limited time, my friend and I decided to pick up sandwiches and take advantage of the opportunity to see what we could see.

The “picnic” was an opportunity to sit at a table on the back porch and eat what we brought with us. It was lovely, but provided nothing but ambience. I would love to have learned a bit about the landscaping plan, whether the porch was an add-on, or how the porch was used when the original owners and architects designed it. Even a handout would have been appreciated. Since we had nothing, we chatted with a couple from Florida about hurricanes.

Our twenty minute docent tour started with a set of “rules” presented in a semi- dictatorial manner. The first rule was a demonstration of how we women should hold our purses – in the front of our stomachs and close to our body! Then we were admonished not to stand on the edge of the carpets and not to touch a thing, even a wall. The docents provided no humor or welcoming atmosphere, and stated the rules first and foremost, in arrogant fashion. It was an “us and them” scenario, and it surprised me, but more than that, as a casual visitor, it was condescending behavior which did not entice me to consider becoming a member, which is something I usually do.

When I entered the first room with stanchions indicating where the visitors should stand, I was gruffly told which side of the stanchion to stand on, as if that was not self-explanatory! During the tour, an elderly man in our group lightly touched one of the rocking chairs by accident. The docent admonished him with, “Don’t touch that. It is worth more than the house you are living in!” I was surprised, and the visitor was embarrassed.

Aside from these off-putting comments, the interpretation consisted primarily about the type of wood used and the assembly of walls and furniture. I heard nothing that would put the home in context of the time period and the evolution of the city, other than the owners were trying to escape harsh Chicago winters.

Twenty minutes is plenty of time to provide context AND create rapport and impress the visitor, inviting her/him to come back for the longer tour, become a member, or get involved. Unfortunately, this one left me cold, starting at the front door.

I realize my expectations may be higher than most, but it is so disappointing to see good organizations miss the interpretive possibilities and development opportunities. Are you monitoring what your docents are saying and doing? While scripting can make a docent bored, insisting that key messages, the right tone, and highlights to be delivered will build on your strategy beyond numbers of people “through the doors.” Plan your highlights tour and refine it. Train and evaluate your docents. It can make or break your image, and your wallet.

On a final note, our docent did not invite us to visit the store to shop afterwards. Creating an incentive to go back to the store could raise additional earned revenue. Then again, make sure you turn on the lights in your store. This one was dark and crowded, and I could not wait to leave.

Saturday, July 19th, 2014 museums, nonprofits, public relations

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