Monday, 6 November 2017

Visitor Services Workshop: some impressions and thanks

Workshop participants
In October Arts Tasmania, Museums Galleries Australia (Tasmania) and the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) presented a Visitor Services Workshop to members and others at the Port Arthur Historic Site (PAHS). As a workshop participant here are my impressions from a most satisfying day.

At the outset a big thanks to PAHSMA staff particularly the presenters and Melissa Smith (MGA Tas Committee Member and Arts Tasmania Roving Curator) who put it all together. To quote Melissa, 'The site was looking absolutely stunning, despite the shipping container entrance experience which couldn’t be avoided when a major new visitor’s centre is being built!!" PAHS is pumping with 350 000 visitors per year to cater for. Visitors arrive by car, bus and cruise ships and the existing facilities were no longer the right fit for the 21st century visitor. The planned opening date is the 18 December 2018 and the centre will have new dining, shop and orientation/interpretation facilities. For more information about the upgrade check this out ( In light of competing demands it was especially generous of the staff to share their considerable skills and experiences. The growth in numbers is testimony to PAHSMA's successful approach largely predicated on superior customer service before, during and after each visit. This customer service extends to product development and various cross promotions at play in and around the site.


Jodie Steele/Gemma Davie – Heritage Programs
Jake Bradshaw– Guiding
Maria Stacey – Visitor Services Manager
Ann McVilly – Tourism Operations

Ann and Maria

Ann (left) and Maria (right)
Here are notes from their talk. Often visitors arrive not knowing anything about the site simply that it is a 'must see'. Therefore a kind of concierge service operates from the carpark where a member of staff greets you to direct to the ticketing office but also to answer questions. Ticketing staff then need to be able to quickly describe the range of experiences to get the best match for that visiting group. PAHS has ticket sales by internet (see and also available through other agencies). Ann and Maria spoke about providing various products for different ages, tastes and visiting time frames such as the boutique Commandants Carriage Tour, the entertaining Ghost Tours, the exclusive behind the scenes tours, theatre productions, artists in residence, site specific installations, technology tours with an iPod as well as the Introductory tour and roving shuttle bus for tired punters (see The Site works at a regional tourist level and for example has adjusted its opening hours to cater for later arrivals due to other attractions on the Peninsula.

At the end of the day each visitor package is to honour the World Heritage listed site and the dark stories it tells. Staff are continually balancing the tension between maintaining the integrity of the site and catering to the growing numbers of visitors. The Site is remote and therefore cannot rely on a stable internet connection which makes Wifi enabled interpretation both problematic and an advantage as 'old school' analogue techniques must be relied upon. High value is placed on the archaeological and historic research and staff want visitors to tap into this expertise and care. Two key tips arose:
* A living person available to answer visitor questions is better than signage but if you can't have a person make the signage tell a personal story
*Visitors are reassured by staff that they are in the right place even if they are lost--its just a matter of re orientation and continuing on 


Jake has a teaching background and so is well placed to both train guides but also be sensitive to the learning needs and interests of visitors. So dedicated he came to speak with us on his day off! Things I remember from his talk:
·    *The aim for each guide is for them to find their passion with the place and in turn help the visitor find their own connections with the Site.
*   * Recruit well from the beginning. Guides tend to be born and not made. In other words content can be learnt but not the interpersonal empathy required to make the connection between guide, visitor and site. In-depth specialised content is of no real benefit unless it can be successfully conveyed to the visitor.
*    *Jake starts new guides off with a basic script. Once guides (and their manager) are confident they are encouraged to personalise their tours. Staff believe that telling the story of the site through the experience of an individual is very powerful. Visitors are then better able to make their own personal connections.
*    *Guides are subject to ongoing review. It is essential that feedback be developmental rather than purely critical.
*    *Guides become experienced at deflecting questions from an individual in the group that is dominating discussion by explaining that they have a way to go and it is best if they can speak after the tour. The size of the group will dictate the style of presentation with smaller groups lending themselves to conversations and larger groups turning the guide into an engaging lecturer.

Jodie and Gemma

Gemma's work is with school students visiting on an excursion as well as school holiday activities. The site is best matched with Years 5 and 9 where the Australian National Curriculum specifically targets convict history. The Site sends out Discovery Boxes as an outreach program to Tasmanian schools. Innovative programs include designing convict tattoos, writing letters, outdoor and indoor historic games, making connections with authentic trades, creating tussymussy's from Port Arthur flowers (though not picked from the actual gardens). She uses the skills from all sorts of staff to develop these activities such as a guide who is also a landscape painter.

Jodie contributed throughout the workshop. At one point she discussed the 2014 site signage overhaul which reviewed placement and content of signs. Content moved away from dates, facts and VIPs to more personal stories. The signs were still packed with information but were made more reader friendly and concise. The popular Lottery of Life convict cards will still be used as an interpretive tool but new characters were added to take the history beyond the 1840s. The site is also experimenting with the use of scents and sounds. For example an outdoor 'smellarama' to evoke the scent of baking triggered as you cross an entry door.


As I walked around the site taking pictures, thinking about the workshop, appreciating the beauty of the landscape and the poignancy of the stories it started to rain. I had no umbrella. But then a staff member came by in the shuttle bus and said in a most cheery tone 'do you want a ride? I'm going back to the centre.' As I travelled back in style I considered the various ways that staff can make an experience that much more memorable and enjoyable.

Helen Whitty (committee member & workshop participant)

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