Visitor Experience restructure at Tate with David Hingley

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with David Hingley, Head of Visitor Experience at Tate.

David Hingley has over 20 years experience leading large teams in delivering customer and visitor experience.

A lifelong lover of history (honestly there used to be a badge for that in cubs and that’s where it all started), David followed a history degree by joining the graduate trainee scheme at Sainsbury’s before moving on to a number of roles in Marks and Spencer, ending up running a department store when they were still fashionable. Having been told during a career development conversation that a future desire to ‘run a castle’ was a daydream not a career plan – David was able to combine his passion for history with transferrable retail skills in the role of Head of Operations at Hampton Court Palace for Historic Royal Palaces. During this time he worked on projects such as the 2012 Olympic cycling time trial, the 2014 Poppies installation at the Tower of London, and the Magic Garden. He is currently Head of Visitor Experience at Tate Modern and Tate Britain which, thanks to Covid, has involved a lot more discussion about one-way routes, Perspex screens and face-coverings than the initial application process suggested.

As well as Tate, David’s a Trustee at Painshill Park, an average runner and a keen reader and walker.

He believes that ‘people make places’ and it’s the shared enjoyment of unique sites by the volunteers and staff who care for them, and the visitors that make their memories there, that ensure they continue to thrive.

“How can you help a thinly spread team to embody the place and have confidence and get it right for all kinds of visitors? From a visitor to Tate Modern who’s wandered in off the South Bank just to have a look around because they’re curious, to someone who’s come to Tate Britain on a mission to see a particular painting because that’s what they want to see.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The visitor experience restructure at Tate
  • Why do people make places
  • How visitor experience make crazy ideas happen

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunesGoogle Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

David Hingley Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, David Hingley


Kelly Molson: David, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s lovely to see you.

David Hingley: Great to see you. Thanks for having me on.

Kelly Molson: Well as ever, we are going straight to icebreaker questions. I would like to know if you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?

David Hingley: At the moment, I think I would like to live… This will be popular with some people I know… in Iceland. It’s because we went years ago on a whale watching trip to Iceland in the coast, and it was fantastic. Ever since, I’ve wanted to go back, it is just completely different to anywhere else I’ve been on, I think, on the planet. A week wasn’t enough.

Kelly Molson: Totally agree with you. We went… Oh, 2017, maybe around then. Absolutely spectacular. Like you say, so different to anywhere that we’d ever experienced before. Bonkers, bonkers snow and weather and just everything is icy, but magic. Absolutely magic.

David Hingley: Yeah and the belief in that magic as well. It’s the whole mythology and stuff that’s going on there, but also I loved… At the end of it all, we were in the back of beyond for a lot of the trip, obviously, but we’re in Reykjavík. I think it was 20 degrees, and everyone was complaining how hot it was. We went to this little coffee shop. It was all as if you were in the busiest part of London, but there were honestly maybe three, four people there. It was, “You’re in the big city now. This is how we roll.” I just love that.

Kelly Molson: While we’re on this subject, did you eat the fermented shark?

David Hingley: Yes, not much. Not very much at all.

Kelly Molson: So bad. Yeah, so bad.

David Hingley: We had a tour guide who was very keen that we did, and we did the very British polite thing, but it was not good.

Kelly Molson: Was not for me, David, either. Okay. Would you rather be a super hero, and what would be your superhero talent, or the world’s best chef?

David Hingley: I feel like my family would say that if I was the world’s best chef, that would be a super talent, compared with where we are at the moment. I’m not really sure about being a superhero. I think I’d rather be a chef. There’s a lot rests on you as a superhero. I’m not sure. Especially after the last few years, I’m not sure I could deal with it. I think to be a chef and have people come and enjoy the food, that’d be great. I’m not sure how my signature dish of Toad in the Hole followed by like a kind of version of school dinners, chocolate concrete and custard would go down, but I’m sure I could deconstruct it.

Kelly Molson: The Toad in a Hole sounds okay. The rest that came afterwards, let’s just park that, shall we? Okay. I don’t ask enough people this, and I should, but often it’s like asking what your favourite child is. But what is your favourite attraction?

David Hingley: Oh, that is…

Kelly Molson: It’s a hard one, isn’t it?

David Hingley: I think a lot of it’s down to what your mood is at the time. It’s predictable. I would probably go for Hampton Court. I know I’ve worked there, but I do… The reason I say that is even though I kind of know how it’s done, I still love going back and visiting it. I can properly enjoy it as a visitor now because I was a visitor before, then I worked there. Now, I’m a visitor again. It’s still got something about it because there’s so many different facets to it with the gardens or the kind of… It’s family friendly. It’s got all the history. So yeah, that would be my favourite attraction.

Kelly Molson: That’s good. That’s good that you can step away from it, having worked there because I think sometimes that might ruin it a little bit for you. It’s good that it still got the magic. Great answer. Thank you very much. All right. It’s time for your unpopular opinion. What have you prepared for us?

David Hingley: I feel quite strongly that Ant & Dec’s early work was their superior period. As much as I know the nation loves Ant & Dec, I think you look back on Let’s Get Ready To Rumble, I think… The fact that when they revisited that it went… Everyone was so pleased. For me, that shows the quality was there from the start.

I think growing up Grange Hill might have done Just Say No To Drugs, which was very laudable, but Ant & Dec were in Biker Grove. We got that warning about the dangers of paintball. For anyone in my generation that had to go on a lot of management away days, where people thought it’d be fun if we did stuff like paintball, I think that kind of early warning was important. And, yeah, Wonky Donkey, I mean, you’re never going to beat that.

Kelly Molson: Oh my God. Wonky donkey is the best.

David Hingley: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I mean, there’s nothing like an aggressive Dec, is there? Nothing. It’s glorious.

David Hingley: Saturday morning with a bit of a hangover watching them basically losing it with kids, who are trying to answer a very simple question. I mean, I don’t know why they don’t bring that back on Saturday Takeaway or something like that. I just think it would… I do think it’s a superior period. I mean, I like what they do now, but I think they’ve lost some of the edge. Got to be honest.

Kelly Molson: I agree with you, David. I am completely on the same page with you. Ant & Dec were… They’re like my little heroes that I grew up with. I actually saw them perform Let’s Get Ready To Rumble live once at an under 18s gig in Romford.

David Hingley: Wow.

Kelly Molson: I don’t know why that was important, but yeah, it was a great, great moment. Really great moment. Thank you. Let’s see what our listeners feel. Please tweet me. Let me know how you feel about Ant & Dec’s earlier work and whether they should bring back Wonky Donkey obviously. Right, David, let’s get onto the serious stuff. I’d like to know a little bit about your background. You alluded to the fact that you’ve worked in other attractions as well. So tell us about your background and where you’re at too now.

David Hingley: My background’s kind of fairly mixed and quite a lot of different things. Years ago… My daughter reminds me years ago. Years ago, I did a degree in history. Absolutely loved it. My parents always said, “You know what’ll happen with that? You’ll end up working in a shop,” because nobody knows what to do with a degree in history. So I proved them right and went and worked in shops. I worked for Sainsbury’s on the graduate training scheme. I thought I’d do it for 12 months, just get some great knowledge, and then I’ll move on.

I did that for seven years, did different jobs there, night shift managers, fruit and veg managers, that kind of stuff because I just like working with the people. Then I went work for M&S when running department stores was still a thing. God, I spent seven years with M&S. I was a food hall manager because that’s what they do with anyone who’s come from supermarkets. I worked in some really interesting shops. I worked in the Kings Road, which is quite a fancy place, obviously. Ken High Street, where we used to have flamingos on the roof because the roof gardens were above us, so that was quite cool. Then Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

But all the time I was thinking I’d really like to do something that I felt more at home with. I was reading my history books on my breaks. Then Hampton Court advertised for a head of visitor services, I think it was. I thought, “I’ll give that a go.” I stuck my CV in and yeah, I was successful. I got the job, which feels like a real cheat, because I know how hard people work and. I feel like I had loads of transferable skills, and the organisation took a bit of a flyer on me.

I know that’s true because on the first morning when I started, I was having a coffee with the director, and he’s very… You can imagine, all the rooms at Hampton Court are very grand. It was quite a grand room. He just said, “It’s amazing who comes out top of these recruitment processes, isn’t it?”

Kelly Molson: “Oh, thanks.”

David Hingley: … which I think was well meant. Then I got to work at Hampton Court. It was head of visitor services and it became head of operations. As those roles always change names. Then we had the Olympics, the Jubilee. We had the Magic Garden opened, which was massive for Hampton Court. The kids’ garden opened. I was involved with the Tower of London when they did the poppies in the moat as well.

Kelly Molson: Oh, amazing.

David Hingley: Remember the delivery of every one of those because that was part of the team I was involved in, delivering them for like a year afterwards. Then I did a bit of time at Landmark Trust, where I was the Chief Operating Officer. They’ve got about 200 historic buildings all over the country, rescue them. If they’re not big enough to be a tourist attraction, you can get the keys to a castle and stay there for a weekend, which is amazing, but they don’t like you popping in to see how their holidays going, those visitors, so you miss all the… I missed all the kind of visitor interaction.

Then the Tate role came up, which is Tate Britain and Tate Modern and working with the teams, looking after the day-to-day visitor experience. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years, although sometimes feels like it longer given the last year and a bit.

Kelly Molson: Imagine. Yeah, I could imagine.

David Hingley: That’s really potted history of how I ended up where I am.

Kelly Molson: So it’s Tate and Tate… Sorry, Tate Modern and Tate Britain.

David Hingley: Yes.

Kelly Molson: What does a typical day for you look like then? Are you rushing from one to the other and working out what the hell’s going on?

David Hingley: Not as much as it used to be, thanks to Zoom. Used to spend quite a bit of time on the boat going between the two sites. Anyone who works at Tate would tell you, it’s quite nice if you’ve got to go from Tate Modern to Tate Britain from me. You can get the boat because you feel like a tourist for that 25 minutes. I know this sounds like every glossy catalog, but there isn’t a typical day.

Whilst my teams are making sure the doors are open, all the exhibitions are staffed and we’re all looking ready to go and everything, my job is kind of 50% thinking about what’s going on at the moment. I often say I have to think about the worst day out anyone can have and then stop that happening. In the last year with COVID, how do you open sites with COVID and make sure they’re still fun?

Then the other 50%’s kind of looking at what’s coming next. Typical days can be in the mornings, I could be in meetings about exhibitions that are going to open up at Tate Britain or Tate Modern in next kind of two years, 12 months or just around the corner. Then there’s all the stuff around looking after the team, one to ones with colleagues, look after the senior teams at each site, planning what we’re going to do to kind of train everybody up on whatever’s coming next, all of the business continuity planning stuff, making sure that we’re operating safely, thinking about risk assessments, kind of all the-

Kelly Molson: All the fun stuff.

David Hingley: All the fun stuff, yeah. I say if it’s kind of tricky, tedious or terrifying, it’s probably going to fall into the operations teams part. Not in a bad way because we like doing all that stuff, but yeah, a mix of project planning, thinking about how we work with the programming teams and bring that to life and then looking after our own teams day to day and making sure they’ve got what they need to get through a day and operate smoothly.

Kelly Molson: I can only imagine how reactive that has needed to be over the past 18 months and potentially the next few months to come.

David Hingley: Yeah. Constantly. I think the trick is kind of finding the spot as well between being reactive and trying to be proactive, which has been even harder in the last year because many of us don’t know what’s going to happen until the evening before, do we?

Kelly Molson: No. No. Then you found out from Bernard in his updates rather than the government.

David Hingley: Yeah. Bernard and his flowers and his updates.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, yeah. Famous flowers. We’ve been emailing backwards and forth and talking about different topics for the podcast. One of the things that you mentioned that I think is really interesting is about the visitor experience restructure that you were looking at at Tate. You said it actually accelerated a not-change program. Talk us through what you mean by that because I’d love to understand, one, how that came about and, two, what it kind of looks like.

David Hingley: Yeah. Kind of fortunate, unfortunate, I took the job about two and a half years ago. So I didn’t have that long really before COVID to get my head around the two sites, Tate, the way things worked, but when I started, the role was very much… It was a slight rejigging of roles as happens in organisations. Was talking to obviously the team that recruited me about what it was they wanted from the role. It was about moving from, if you like, a more traditional visitor service, visitor operations to engagement.

Engagement was a big word that was used a lot. I don’t think any of us were quite sure exactly what that meant. It was quite terrifying for some of the team not because they can’t do it, but because the word was used a lot. The team were like, “Well, we do engage with people. We talk to people all the time,” or, “We were taken on as gallery assistants back in the day when engagement would mean telling someone to back off if they got too close to a painting because it was our job to protect the stuff.”

It was always going to be about looking at how we could change the way that we worked as a team because Tate obviously used to millions of visitors, operated very smoothly. I mean, you go in and do your kind of casing the joint before you go for the interview. You can see there’s kind of a well oiled machine, but one of the things is that it can be quite hot and cold as you go around the building. You can have brilliant individual interactions and then they’ve asked buildings… There’s other areas where you don’t meet anyone.

Kelly Molson: Right.

David Hingley: How can you help a thinly spread team to embody the place and have confidence and get it right for all kinds of visitors? From a visitor to Tate Modern’s wandered in off the South Bank just to have a look around because they’re curious, to someone who’s come to Tate Britain on a mission to see a particular painting because that’s what they want to see. That’s their day out.

I call it a bit of a not change program because it deliberately didn’t do a change program. I think as soon as you start saying like, “I’m the new person. I’m here to do a change program,” it terrifies people quite often. Everybody knows that if somebody new turns up when there’s a new structure, that there is going to be change. So rather than labeling it in that way, what I did and what my team did and what we agreed to do was to work collectively on what that needed to look like because many of the visitor assistants, they knew what they wanted to do differently.

It was a case of doing a lot of… I don’t know. It sounds kind of slightly old hat, but focus groups, discussion groups with those teams to just tease out of them what great service looked like, what got in the way of delivering it, how they would like things to be different and then being able to almost play that back to the teams and use that to shape the changes that we were going to make.

David Hingley: You can write a lot of that down in advance on the back of an envelope, if you like, because you genuinely know what people feel makes a good experience or you can generally guess what the barriers are going to be. But it’s about making sure you’ve uncovered that all as a team. We really took… Tate, fortunately for me, had just had some new values that they’ve been working on, again, as an organisation around being kind, rigorous, open and bold.

What we were able to do was we were able to say… Well, I was able to say, “I’m not sure how a painting or a piece of art is kind, but I know how a person can do that if I come in as a visitor and I’m looking a bit lost or my kids desperately need the toilet and I need to find it first.

We took on thinking about how we, as people, embody Tate’s values and really pulling it all back to that, which on the one hand, can sound a bit corporate, but actually I think it was really important that we… What we wanted to do was build a common language and a way of talking, so we could sort of hold ourselves to account and work out whether we’d had a good day or not.

Kelly Molson: It’s interesting because when you talk about it like that, from the aspect of our values, it feels very much that the visitor experience is… It’s almost about giving… It’s giving people the allowance to do what they need to do at that time. We had Liz Power on from Water And Steam a few weeks ago.

That was one of the things that she spoke about in her team is that she empowers them to make the right decision about a circumstance. That might be somebody gets to give a free ticket away to somebody for them and their family. That, to me, sounds very similar to what you’re talking about.

David Hingley: Yeah. I think it is about that. It can be really hard, particularly in big institutions where you’ve got people, let’s be honest, standing in certain spaces and galleries… I mean, that’s part of the insurance and the fire evacuation, right? That’s what’s led to a person being stood there, first and foremost.

You’ve got to do that and it’s really important, but then how can you enable that person still to kind of bring themselves… A lot of my team, they’re highly skilled. A lot of them are artists. This is another job that they do. It’s how you can enable them to bring that to an institution and yet still kind of have a feel of like, “Okay, this is Tate. This is what Tate feels like.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah. How difficult was this to do because I guess, did this start just before the pandemic?

David Hingley: We started just before the pandemic with all my kind of like… Having talked to everybody, we kind of set the direction. There was this brilliant five-year plan because we all [inaudible 00:17:39]. “And this is what we’re going to do in year one.”

Kelly Molson: Then it got ripped into tiny little pieces.

David Hingley: Absolutely. It was hard. Most of the core team were furloughed because we weren’t open. So I think what we did, those of us who were still in, was we kind of already pitched where we were going to the team. Then we were able to… In one sense, alongside planning how to reopen, we were allowed to do a lot of work on what kind of material we needed, training materials, what kind of… Just going back on basic stuff like we have a handbook for people. Just getting that all tidied up. It kind of really captured the role.

Then we were already thinking about what change to the job role we would want to make because the key change, I think, in terms of the restructures actually have been keen to make sure people understand the skills involved in being a gallery assistant, for example. We call it visitor engagement assistant now. We do laugh and say that all of our jobs have gained an extra letter.

David Hingley: The visitor engagement managers are now visitor engagement and operations managers because that shows the breadth of their job. We have redone everybody’s job descriptions based on the fact that as time’s gone on, people have taken on a lot more of the kind of security aspects. The duty management aspects become bigger.

People are more demanding. We deal with more incidents than we used to in the past. For the visitor assistants, there were seven things on their job description, which I think somebody thought was kind of, “Let’s keep it nice and simple and have some basic stuff on there,” but actually it meant a lot of the time, the team were… The team themselves said they felt they were defined by what they weren’t.

We were able to take some of those ideas and suggestions that they had and incorporate them into a job description and have that ready for when they returned. Then when we returned and we were back in the galleries, then we’d be in again, doing same process. We went through what the proposed changes were, what that would mean and getting people to buy into it and agree to it.

Kelly Molson: Do you think that that was harder to do because of the pandemic, trying to get people motivated to make those changes?

David Hingley: Physically harder to do? Everything’s been hard, I think, from a mental health point of view for people in terms of the backwards and forward of the pandemic, but I think some of the changes that potentially people would’ve seen as major actually in the scheme of all our lives and what’s happened in the last year and a bit, people were… They’re almost like, “Oh gosh, is this all you want me to do?”

Kelly Molson: “Phew.”

David Hingley: I also think one thing that’s helped a lot is during the period when we’ve been in and out… At the moment, we’ve got people working from home, largely if they can office based. Most of my team, we’re in most of the time… So my team have to be in all the time. You can only do your job face to face.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

David Hingley: But it really showed how… It sounds daft because it’s obvious, but it really showed how important those teams are and the weight that they take on. We found that because there’s been a, “What’s the latest legislation? How does it work… And you go to the operational teams because they’re dealing with it all the time. The teams get much more listened to than we perhaps did in the past because it’s been really necessary and really important. I think the organisation as a whole never intended not to listen to those teams, but I think it’s just kind of fine tuned the need to hear what’s said and what the experience is on the ground.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s really interesting. How have you been able to test the impact of the program? You’ve been open for pockets of time, obviously clearly open at the moment. Let’s hope that that continues. How have you been able to test it with the general public?

David Hingley: Yeah. There’s a few things that we’ve done. We’ve started doing a mystery visitor. I mean, that’s not groundbreaking. Loads of people do it, but I think it’s good to have kind of a snapshot. We started to do that before we ran some of our training. We worked with a company called the Whole Story on our customer engagement style, if you like. We ran sessions on that before we reopened last time from the last lockdown. We were able to benchmark where we were before and where we are now. We’ve seen positive movements. We’re in a good place, we’re in a better place.

Kelly Molson: Great.

David Hingley: Especially around consistency. The feedback we get from… Visitors because we’ve had booked tickets, which we haven’t had before for the free collection. So there are issues with that, but one of the positives is we ask people for feedback afterwards and we get really good rates of response. Those responses have been… We saw them become more positive over time.

I think part of that is because we’ve got better with our COVID measures and some of that, but also positive comments about the staff and what they’re doing. I think there’s another element of reopening after the first lockdown, certainly, we did have visitors in tears because they were seeing staff again that they hadn’t seen for ages.

It just been spaces. I think that probably gave some of the team confidence to realise that they do play a significant part in people’s lives, even if those people don’t spend a lot of time interacting, don’t know them by name. Some of them, they do, but that’s kind of reaffirmed the importance. We’ve seen more positive comments definitely, and I think that is a testament to how hard the team have all worked as well actually because it’s been a tough time generally.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. What an amazing reaction though. Isn’t that just lovely? I mean, that really showcases how important people are.

David Hingley: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Kelly Molson: What tips would you give other organisations attractions that are thinking about going through this process?

David Hingley: Again, it’s tried and tested, but definitely over communicating all the time. I mean, I’m not going to say… Obviously there’ve been times when some of the stuff we’ve been doing has not been so popular with some of the team, and I kind of understand that. I think it was important to hear that and to be honest about what I could change and what I couldn’t change. I do think there’s a point around when it didn’t go well.

I could think of at least one occasion where I stuffed up when I just went out to everybody and went, “Do you know what? I stuffed up. There was an email you shouldn’t have received… It wasn’t a particularly batting, but… You shouldn’t have received that email timing wise.” I wanted to make sure that I communicated things differently, but I did the classic thing and sent it to the wrong people.

I just went straight out and to everybody, “I stuffed up,” and a lot of the team came back and said, “We really respect that.” Then we just quickly arranged meetings afterwards. I think we did listen, and we made changes to the proposals in some areas. So if I take this idea of more engagement, I know some of the team have worked with us for over 20 years, and they’re fantastic, and we don’t want to lose them. But what we’re asking them to do is very different from what they signed up for. I think we would… I used to joke. I still do that… that some people were worried that engagement meant kind of almost juggling in front of their favourite painting.

David Hingley: It doesn’t. If you’ve been there for 20 years and you’ve seen Tate Britain evolve or Tate Modern from when it opened, those people have got great stories to tell. What we’ve got, for example, in one of the job descriptions is there’s almost kind of three options where it’s like if you want to be someone who knows the history of the building and shares it with people, build that up and do that. That’s your interaction, but that’ll be what you work on. If you want to give a talk in front of people, great, you can work on that. We need people like that. It’s part of our recruitment process now. We’d recruit people who wanted to do that.

But if you’re someone who joined us before then, and that’s not your thing, but you’ve got years and years of research, as some of my team do, then you can, by all means, provide that content for somebody else to deliver the talk for you. So trying to just, I suppose… Again, it’s an element of being realistic and working with the team you’ve got because none of us are great at everything. So long as we’ve got all the bases covered and everybody’s kind of pulling their weight, that’s what we’re trying to create.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s playing to everybody’s strengths using, everybody’s talents in the best possible way and not by making anyone feel excluded because they’re not comfortable standing up in front of an audience and delivering or that’s just not their bag, but they have got the knowledge.

David Hingley: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: And someone else can do that for them as well. I really love that idea of being able to collaborate with people to share your experiences. Fantastic. Is this leading anywhere? I feel like this change program could be rolled out elsewhere, couldn’t it?

David Hingley: Yeah. Well, I really have been talking to colleagues. I really feel that we’re in a tough time. We’re all going to be struggling in different ways and in different contexts with things like budgets. It’s always hard to get people off the floor to do training. It’s something that we’ve struggled with for a long time.

One of the things I’m keen to do is to work with other institutions and say this is the range of training programs we’re running for front of house teams at Tate. What are you doing? Where’s there some crossover. If we’ve got a room and we can get five people in it… And you’ve got a couple of people that want to come along and see what that’s like, well, why don’t we start to pair up? I don’t think there’s enough.

I know different organisations have done it at different times, but I think if you want to change the way we look at front of house teams, it’s quite hard. You can be starting your career. You might start as a visitor engagement assistant at Tate, and it might not be where you want to be long term, but often people can get stuck there and think, “Well, how do I get to the next place? It’s hard when you’re in that role as well to network, et cetera.”

If we can open up opportunities for someone to go and do a few shifts at a different site, for example, and I can kind of backfill and swap it around between us… Because we know our teams have got very similar skills, then I feel like that’s something that we could really be doing more of. Organisations like Tate, we’ve got an opportunity to help to do that.

Kelly Molson: Love that. It’s building on what we’ve seen in the sector throughout the whole of the pandemic, isn’t it? That kind of collaboration that’s really come through and it’s been there. It has been there to a certain extent, but it’s been so much deeper whilst the pandemic has been going on, everybody helping each other.

Something that you said about the networking thing when people are in those kind of entry-level roles, that’s something that we spoke out with Rachel and Carlton quite a long time ago, actually right towards the beginning of the pandemic about the Visitor Experience Forum.

That was the reason that that organisation was kind of set up to be able to give that platform to some of those audiences as well. I can definitely see the benefits of what you are suggesting. The organisations working together for the greater good. I think that’s a fantastic idea. That comes back to something else that you talked about as well when we were emailing. I love that segue so well in there, but you said you’d like people to understand that visitor engagement is a career choice.

David Hingley: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Your quote was “People make places, visitor engagement make crazy ideas happen.”

David Hingley: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I love this. I love this. Where’s this come from?

David Hingley: People make places, and my team now roll their eyes and repeat. Everybody repeats it, which is great actually because that’s… But it comes from years ago when I worked at M&S actually. It’s where it kind of triggered the idea. I don’t think they used the phrase, but we went to… They used to do big conferences back in the day and get the store managers along. They showed this big black and white film. It was our latest store that was about to open. It was all black and white. It all looked beautiful, but it was all black and white.

Then they put the people in, which was the staff and the customers, and they turned it all to colour. It was like a goosebump moment, which it’s supposed to be, but it did stick with me. Then when I started working in the heritage sector… It’s not a criticism, but I think it is genuinely surprising to me how many areas of the organisation just don’t… Because they don’t interact with people in the same way, they’re not out there seeing what the visitors are doing. Sometimes I bet that’s a blessing for them. Sometimes I think they’re really missing out, but we’ve all got our jobs to do.

I think there was a real… When I get emails… When we get emails in, and it’s emails now rather than letters. It’s never like, “I came… Well, very rarely is it, “I came to Tate and the art was amazing,” because like that’s a given. You come to Tate, you expect the… You might not like it, might not be to your taste, but you know it’s a certain standard or the buildings were amazing. You expect the buildings to be amazing. Hampton Court, same thing. It’s a palace. It’s going to look good.

David Hingley: But people write in and say, “I met Frank” or, “I met James, and he told me why he loved this painting,” or a story about this room. Or he opened a hidden door and showed my child what was through there. That’s what sticks with people. It’s the thing that you don’t immediately come up on your Google search or isn’t in the guidebook, those are the kind of moments where memories get made. Bernard always says staff, not stuff. I think it’s a version of that really. It’s like the stuff’s important, but the people make the interaction, and they’re what you come back for.

That’s that element. It is definitely a career. I know lots of people join front of house teams, and they want to get on and work in other areas of heritage, culture attractions. That’s absolutely fine, but I think we need to be quite honest about where we can get people. We managed to get to a point when I was at Hampton Court, where at the end of a summer season quite a lot of our staff would get stolen by interpretation or membership or other teams because they knew they were good with people. That’s great, but there’s only a limited number of opportunities.

I used to say to people you can’t hang around in the Great Hall at Hampton Court and hope that Lucy Worsley’s going to pluck you for obscurity and make you curator because that isn’t how it works. It’s about people using their in to kind of look at where they want to go and to understand what they might need to do to get other roles rather than… It’s just a bit disingenuous to lead people thinking if they work really hard front of house, that they’re definitely going to get a different role.

David Hingley: But then I would also encourage people to stay front of house, stay in the teams that I get to work in because I look at the meetings in other people’s diaries. I say I don’t have a typical day. I don’t know many other people that get to go along and talk about future acquisitions for Tate in terms of paintings, go along to what’s the next project that’s coming up, hear about what a curator’s working on next, then be in a meeting about membership. The variety, you get to stick your oar in everywhere when you work in visitor experience. That’s cool.

We used to have museum studies group come every year to Hampton Court. I always used to think if I can convert just one of those 35 people who are all hoping to become curators or similar to operations, then that’s like a win. That’s where the crazy ideas happen thing comes in.

You can dispute whether the ideas are crazy, but I’ve been in meetings where somebody says, “We’re going to plant 888,246 poppies in the Tower of London moat and then sell them around the world,” and everyone’s gone, “Really?” Or, “We’re going to have a pie that opens up every day and the kids are going to jump out of it in front of Elizabeth the first. The kid that’s going to go in the pie is going to be one of the visitor’s kids.”

“Oh right, okay. That’s safeguarding risk assessment.” “We built a dragon that gave out steam in the kid’s garden.” There’s all kinds of issues there you’ve got to think about. I think operations teams can be seen as people that say no quite a lot, and sometimes there’s good reasons, but actually the job is more yes if or how do we do that? I think it’s a really creative job and people don’t see it like that.

Kelly Molson: That needs to go on your job ads, doesn’t it? “Come and work with the team that puts children into pies.”

David Hingley: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Maybe not. Maybe not so much like that, but that’s part and parcel of it, isn’t it? I spoke to Kate Nicholls from UK hospitality about the real challenge that we’ve got at the moment with recruitment in that sector. I think it’s about making the best of it. It’s about finding those hooks that make it an interesting place to be and to explain the career path.

Actually a lot of front of house, they might only be thinking one way. They might be relatively narrow minded in the sense of that’s the way that they see their career going, where it’s about showcasing all of these brilliant things that they could go on and do, but making it fun and making it interesting. some of the things that you’ve just described, I wouldn’t have even put in the operations hat?

David Hingley: Yeah. I think this is it because operations are so different at different places as well. You kind of have operations experience, business services, engagement, and they’re all so different. Some people doing my job are looking after all of the maintenance as well. I’ve done the job where I’ve looked after security.

At the moment, I work with security. I don’t have to look after them. So often it is configured around what it isn’t. It’s really clear what a curatorial job is, for example. I’m not picking on it. It just is really clear. If you ask most members of the public who works in a museum, the first thing they’ll say is a curator understandably.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

David Hingley: But they don’t really appreciate all the different jobs that surround that. I think that’s a problem because then people think it’s not the place for them.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

David Hingley: If you want a more diverse workforce, it’s about saying, “Well, these are the opportunities we’ve got. This is the stuff we do.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. Brilliant. David, thank you. I’ve really enjoyed this talk. We always end the podcast with a book recommendation from our guests. Something that they love or something that’s helped shape their career in some way. It can be anything. What have you got for us today?

David Hingley: I had a real think about this. It’s tricky. I always recommend any book by John Falk. Got one here at the moment. He’s just got one out called the Value Of Museums. You’ve probably come across him. I’m sure quite a lot of people will have come across him. I think he writes brilliantly about not just museums, but about all the kind of baggage that we all bring on our visit.

I think he really, in his writing, gets that when somebody rocks up, we do a lot of work on things like personas all of us, but you can be in a different persona depending on who you come with. My experience when I used to take my daughter when she was small round somewhere would be that I’d see the whole exhibition at a million miles an hour, maybe read one label because then we’re off to get a brownie and a cup of tea.

But if I went on my day off on my own, could be there for two hours. It could be a completely different visit. I think he really gets that in his writing. I think he really kind of sums up the operational side of it. Then I’ve got a slightly off the wall one, which is Dylan Thomas. The Dylan Thomas Omnibus has his broadcasting about… He just used to do weekly broadcasts. I pulled one out because he’s got a bit about the Festival of Britain Exhibition in 1951.

Kelly Molson: Right.

David Hingley: He’s just totally gets what visitors are like. I didn’t know whether I could read you just a paragraph of it.

Kelly Molson: Please do.

David Hingley: Pitch people if you work in visitor attractions, look it up. He talks about visitor flow basically. This is the exhibition in 1951. It says, “Most people who wish, at the beginning anyway, to make sense of the exhibition follow the course indicated in the official guidebook, a series of conflicting arrows, which lead many visitors who cannot understand these things splash dash into the Thames.

And work their way dutifully right through the land of Britain, the glaciers of 20,000 years ago, the inferno of blown desert sand, which is now Birmingham, out at last to the Pavilion of Health, where perhaps they stop for an envious moment at the sign that says euthanasia.” It just goes on. It talks about levitating doors and basically how people prefer the cafe to the rest of the site. It’s like four or five pages, but I would recommend looking it up. I can’t find it anywhere else.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s brilliant. Yeah, he really did get it, didn’t he?

David Hingley: Wasted as a poet.

Kelly Molson: David, thank you so much. Listen as ever, if you’d like to win a copy of David’s books… Are there two books there? Two books?

David Hingley: Yeah. I’ve got two books. Yeah.

Kelly Molson: There’s two. If you’d like to win a copy of David’s books, as ever, go over to our Twitter account and retweet this episode announcement with the words “I want David’s books”, then you will be in for a chance of winning them. David, thank you for coming on. What’s next? Is it all rolled out now, everything’s working?

David Hingley: Now is the fun bit I hope. We keep talking about 2022. Let’s hope with where we are at the moment with the virus, but now is the bit where we can really concentrate on the team. We’ve got the team all in place. We’ve kind of got them the job roles that they kind of deserve and hopefully the recognition.

Now should be the bit where we can really develop the people. Our aim is we know it’s been a success, we’ve said if everybody wants to steal our staff, but nobody wants to leave. That’s kind of the challenge. By the end of the year, the next year, that’s where I want to be.

Kelly Molson: All right. Well, come on at the end of next year and tell me how that worked out. I hope all your staff are still with you, but they’re being poached like crazy.

David Hingley: Yeah. Fingers crossed.

Kelly Molson: Thanks ever so much, David.

David Hingley: Thanks very much.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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