Crossing the Floors with David Hingley at Tate
David Hingley, Head of Visitor Experience at Tate, talks about an initiative to share education and development between cultural institutions to professionalize visitor operations as a career pathway.
Angie Judge: Hello and welcome, my name is Angie Judge from Dexibit and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m here today with David Hingley. David, good morning.
David Hingley: Morning. Good to be with you.
Angie Judge: Great to be with you! David has spent the last 12 years leading visitor services and operational excellence in the UK’s leading cultural institutions, and he’s sharing his passion with others up and coming in the industry. From a career in FMCG retailing, David has worked at the Historic Royal Palaces and then the Landmark Trust before going on to head Visitor Experience at Tate across both Tate Britain and Tate Modern since 2019. And he’s also a trustee for Painshill Park and is currently running a series of 10K runs to raise funds for mental health too, I understand. Looking for a bit of sponsorship there, David?
David Hingley: Yeah, always looking for sponsorship. I’ve done 10 runs so far this year and I’ve got two more to go.
Angie Judge: I would gladly be on the paying side rather than the running side. It’s definitely not my cup of tea.
David Hingley: I’m definitely banking on that with a lot of my supporters.
Angie Judge: David is going to share with us today, one of his great passions and how he’s sharing his work in the industry, helping visitor services and frontline teams of the UK’s cultural institutions to – what he calls, “Cross the Floor” – to swap and share in their experiences and gain new ones. So, David, I’m looking forward to hearing all about this. Perhaps you could start us off with a quick overview on what “Crossing the Floors” is all about.
David Hingley: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely a bit of a soapbox of mine. So people that know me and have worked with me know that I’ve been sort of banging on about this in different forms, for quite a while, but essentially it’s a really simple idea. It’s the idea that a lot of the teams that work really broadly in front of house, so visitor experience, my teams, but also areas like ticketing, security, et cetera, they don’t get the same opportunities that other areas of the organization do to just dip out maybe and grab a coffee with a colleague in another institution, or spend time in another museum or a cultural site as part of their work. Because their work is very much normally around being rooted in certain places at certain times so that the site can operate. So talking to the team, one of the things that they wanted to do was have wider experiences and we were thinking about how we could do that, and just one simple way that we came up with was to be able to go and spend some time with a similar or even slightly different institution that was kind of relatively close by, because we’re always thinking about the cost for the team member, for example, to do a different commute, but, you know, go and spend a day shadowing a shift, buddying up with a colleague and just see what it’s like. So, for example, Tate Modern sits facing St. Paul’s Cathedral, and they’re both big tourist sites, but they’re very different obviously, in terms of what they offer. So what “Crossing the Floors” does is it gives people an opportunity to think, especially those people who are just starting off their career and maybe working for Tate is their first job. They may well love it, but they may also be trying to work out what they want to do longer term as a career. This gives them a chance just to go and spend a day and just get a taste of what that might be like. Whether that’s for them, whether it’s not, but also a chance also to see how things are done differently in different places. Because I think you can become very kind of focused on your own institution. So it’s nice to kind of take a step back and see something different.
Angie Judge: And how do you get around this kind of constraint that you mentioned there of as a frontline person, these people would need to be onsite for it to operate. Is this something that they’re doing on work time? Is it out of work time? How do they manage, you know, that need to be present at their own institution?
David Hingley: Yeah, so we’ve worked really closely with partner organizations to sort of see how we can make this work and everybody’s gonna do it in the same way, because we thought that was really important. And it will be done on work time. Again, I think the culture sector can depend a lot on people getting experience through volunteering, and we thought it was important to be able to give people the chance to do something at their regular rate of pay. So they will work with a buddy. So it does mean that each site’s got to free just one person up for a day. We can run this scheme, we can have people who are interested put their names forward. We’ve been very clear that we kind of have to plan ahead to make sure our rotors work, et cetera. But then we can drop people in over a number of months into their kind of chosen site on days when we are better staffed and we know we can afford to do that. And the place where they’re going, whoever’s hosting them, knows that, you know, “Alright, they’re getting somebody who we’re not gonna leave them on their own, but we do know that these people have transferrable skills. They’re going to be great at talking to visitors at customer service. So they’ll bring that along with them.” So in a sense, you probably get kind of the equivalent of an extra half-person, they’re on your site for the day without leaving them, you know, unsupported. Because it’s really important that they’re with somebody and they’re looked after and that’s part of it. We’ve got six different organizations at the moment who are working on this and we’ve already got people that want to join us and expand. It’s easier to spread the load between us, whereas if we’re trying to do training kind of for our own teams, it’s really difficult to get more than a few people off the floor sometimes.
Angie Judge: Yeah. There is sort of a critical mass that you need to reach in order to do training across frontline teams, isn’t there?
David Hingley: Yeah, absolutely. So really one of the things we are looking at as well, is sharing the kind of training courses that we run because we recognize there’ll be a lot of similarities and I may only be able to get a couple of people off the floor, which would mean running a course for my team wouldn’t be cost effective, but if there are other teams that want to run a similar course and they can all get a couple of people off their floor together between us, then we can run the course.
Angie Judge: And I have to ask, in today’s tight labor market where it is quite difficult to attract staff, and I know so many cultural institutions are feeling that pinch at the moment and are short staffed. Does that become a little bit of a risk in terms of letting staff walk out the door and across the way to someone who I imagine isn’t quite a competitor, but equally another workplace that might entice others away?
David Hingley: Do you know what? I think it’s always a risk, but I think it’s that classic, there’s absolutely a risk that if you don’t do something to look after and develop your team, you’re going to end up with individuals who are frustrated, who want to get on, but aren’t seeing the opportunities and who are probably gonna look elsewhere anyway. So I think there are two bits to it. It is a tight labor market. We’re all pulling on, effectively very similar pools, but we’re talking about how we want to change that pool of people in the future and attract more diverse individuals, for example, in the culture sector. And I think each institution is not gonna be able to do that on its own. So by pulling together, you know, maybe I’m a firm believer sometimes in getting the right person in the right place. So there could be somebody who’s a little bit demotivated, maybe isn’t sure that my place of work is a place for them, but they go and experience somewhere else. They really find that that is where they want to be. And then I think you’ve gotta take a broader view that that is good for the sector. And you know, I’m a believer that our organizations are, although we would quite often say they’re large, they’re not large in the scheme of the world. I’ve worked for kind of major blue chip companies where we had tens of thousands of employees, lots more opportunities to develop. So I think what we can do by giving people the opportunity to see what else is out there is they have an opportunity to develop. There’s not necessarily always somewhere for them to go where they’re currently employed, but it may be they go away and come back and they’ve got some experience in a different role. So I think, yeah, I’m a firm believer in giving people that opportunity.
Angie Judge: Very well put. And I know I love hearing your passion that speaks to the way in which a visitor services or visitor experience career is a profession in its own right. I’m curious, at what moment in your own career sort of sparked this inspiration behind starting off this effort around “Crossing the Floors”?
David Hingley: Yeah, I think I’ve always been interested in that kind of, I think if you work with lots of people, you know, you always get interested in what makes people tick, be that the visitors and customers or be that your own team and how that interaction between individuals is the point where, let’s be honest, whatever your product, whatever area you work in, that’s kind of the moment when it happens. And that’s very, I think that’s very personal. So I think it’s really important. Whatever else goes into an experience or a project is that kind of interaction moment where it actually happens. That for me is the most important part. And so I came to the conclusion that whatever else people did in the background, when I worked in department stores, or now I work in more creative and cultural industries, that personal interaction can totally ruin everything else on the downside or it can totally make up for something that’s not quite working in the way that you’d hoped. So I think that is a real, it’s often overlooked and partly that’s because it does just happen because, you know, we are just human at the end of the day, and we try and get on with each other most of the time and we try and make things sort of work as well as they possibly can. On the one hand, that’s quite a simple thing because we do it all the time in everyday life. So we all think we can do it. But delivering that day in, day out for very different audiences that may be coming into the same place, that is a real skill. And I think you learn that over time. So I think for me, probably there was a point at which actually when I was working in department stores, when I decided that I actually really liked that part of the whole journey. And I have done roles where I’ve been further away from that kind of interaction, and I’ve just found I don’t get the same buzz out of it and I don’t enjoy it as much. And I also think the teams in that expert field of operations, visitor experience, more broadly, I think they’re people who what gives them a buzz, is usually seeing somebody go away who’s had their experience turned around if they were maybe not having a great time or who’ve had their experience really moved on to the next level. People write in, I always kind of joke a bit, but people write in, and this is the same wherever I’ve worked. And they don’t say the art was amazing at Tate Modern. I mean, they do, but they kind of expect that because it’s Tate. Or when they go to a royal palace, they expect the royal palaces to look amazing, to be stunning, to be full of history. That’s kind of a given, which is slightly unfair, but that’s the deal. But what they write in about is the member of staff they met that told them the little secret or the thing that they couldn’t read in the guidebook or the writing about the sandwiches in the toilets. But I think it’s really important that you leave a real impression on people and I think that can get so overlooked because it’s really hard to quantify actually. You can do mystery visit scores and you can, you know, there’s all kinds of things you can do. It’s quite hard to tap into just what it is people do because if you’re doing it right as well, it seems effortless and I think that’s really hard. It’s almost, the better a team is at it, the less it gets noticed.
Angie Judge: That’s so true.
David Hingley: Because we always react and again, team people that work in these teams, I think are naturally predisposed to kind of look at what went wrong and try and fix it for next time.
Angie Judge: And David, I wondered if there’s a moment that you’ve learned through “Crossing the Floors” or seen somebody else learn that sort of light bulb moment of those secret ingredients that go into that secret source that delivers that really special visitor experience.
David Hingley: It’s really interesting. I’ve seen it where we’ve taken, even just taken people in on work experience at different levels and they’ve quite often been really nervous about, you know, the first time you go and work, usually you end up wearing a uniform. If you are in a big visitor experience team, as soon as you put that uniform on or that name badge or whatever you do, the pressures on. Everybody assumes you know everything. And I think what I’ve seen quite a few times is where you say, “Well, we’ve partnered you up with this person today.” And it’s usually somebody who knows the institution clearly, someone who’s really enthusiastic about it. What we found is if you say to them, “While you are with that person, just kind of ask them about what their personal favorites are. You know, what little stories they’ve got.” I have seen quite a few people really blossom on the fact that what they’ve realized is, you don’t need to be an expert on everything. You can’t. But if there’s a few bits that you really know and you really love, and you really learn to kind of tell that story or share that in the way that you want, that can really make a difference. And I can think of people who are quite quiet, although, you know, great at meeting and greeting, but you know, quite quiet as an individual. You would say they were outgoing, but they, they pick up these bits from people that they’re buddying up with and you can see they think “I could do this because there’s something in this space where I’m working that I’m massively passionate about, and I know I’m not gonna have a problem talking to somebody about it for five, ten minutes if that’s what I need to do.” So I think that’s what you see people kind of take away from the experience.
Angie Judge: It’s a great leadership mission, isn’t it? To connect with your “why” and find your personal passion in there that helps you love your work.
David Hingley: Yeah, I think that’s it. And I think one thing that I’ve reflected on is, and that probably has made me even more passionate about the idea that this is a real career for people, is that you come across people who are so passionate about what they do. Whether you meet people, for example, who work at Tate, who are practicing artists as well. And this is just where everything connects for them. And that’s fantastic, but it’s, you know, it’s also great because it’s something that they want to share with people.
Angie Judge: And so, outside of that passion, what are some of the big skill gaps that we as an industry need to address?
David Hingley: One of the things I used to kind of give regular talks to museum studies groups, which I always loved doing. I think a lot of people in the audience, and this is not to say that you shouldn’t want to become a curator, but they’ve kind of, the job they’ve heard of is being a curator in a museum. So that’s what they want to do. I think this happens in lots of organizations, actually. There are certain jobs that you just think, “Right, that’s the job I want. Cause that’s the one I’ve heard of.” So actually one of the gaps is in people being able to understand what the structures are that are behind working in, for example, a museum or heritage site. Such as the ones I work in at the moment. You can work in marketing, you can work in maintenance. There’s a whole structure there and I think one of the gaps is that we just don’t make people aware that we do need those skills. So it’s kind of a catch-22. I think what people naturally want to do is to specialize in an area and so actually one of the skills gaps is in, I would say if you work in Visitor Experience because you’re the end result of everything else in the organization. You are the kind of point of delivery. You do get to see everything. So you get to work with every single team. And that in itself is a skill to be able to balance that and to be able to put across your experience in dealing with customers to say, “I know this looks great on paper, but in the nicest possible way. I don’t think it’s gonna work when it comes into contact with people.” And I think another gap is having people who don’t necessarily have a massive understanding about everything, but a great understanding of specific things. Sometimes you’ve just got teams on the front line who know the visitors who operate in those spaces every day, and it can be something as simple as everybody always turns left when they come through that door. There’s not necessarily any deep logic as to why that is, but that’s just what the humans have been doing here for ages. So don’t build an exhibition where you need everyone to turn right because they’re gonna get confused. Sometimes there’s less understanding of the importance of really having, not just having the data, because I think we’re quite good at having data, but analyzing it and seeing how you can get the best possible use out of it. So I’m thinking about things like, how many people go through an exhibition in a day, and really breaking that down. I think people don’t tend to work on the detail of like, how many people did you get through that hour? How many people did you get through the next? How does it vary? How can you maximize and make sure the experience is as good as possible while still having the ticket sales that you want? And I think that’s an area that when I moved from retail into heritage and culture, I felt that the sector has been behind on at times. It almost feels like it’s not somewhere where people wanna get too scientific about it because it might ruin the magic, but I think it’s quite the reverse.
Angie Judge: That’s so true. I’m so glad you brought up data and insight as part of that skill gap, because I think what we see in our work is that the visitor experience and visitor services teams in a venue or a museum where data is incredibly successful, they are the number one consumers of data. They look at forecasts to do their rostering. They look at visitor sentiment to see how happy their visitors are. They look at exhibition performance against goals. Again, they look at revenue, average revenue per visit, and how they can improve it and get visitor services into that state of play. There is quite a big leap to make from how we’ve operated in the past. Right?
David Hingley: Yeah, definitely. I think I’ve often been surprised by the fact that data doesn’t actually get to the teams on the ground sometimes. It’s almost like it’s analyzed, understandably, it’s analyzed financially and all that, but it’s not necessarily looked at by the visitor facing teams. And I think there are always gonna be some members of the team, and that’s fine, who aren’t into all of that detail. You don’t need every single person to know the minutiae of it. But certainly, at a management level, I think it makes such a huge difference to be able to stand back. I mean, we’ve all had it happen when we work operationally, where you think at the end of the day, “Gosh, that was a busy day. You know, we must, we must have had a really large number of people come through.” And then you look back at the counters and, you know, oh, it wasn’t as busy as I thought. It just happened to be one of those days where we dealt with a number of issues. So that’s really helpful, I think. But the reverse is also true, sometimes you think, “Gosh, that didn’t feel like it was a busy day,” but actually what it means is you’ve had huge numbers of people through, you’ve hit your targets, but you’ve managed to do it in a really good way. And to be able to go back and look at that and say, “Right, how do we repeat that experience so that having X thousand people through the doors over a weekend so it doesn’t feel painful? I think that’s really important.
Angie Judge: Yeah, and you hit on such an important point there that often we haven’t democratized that data to those frontline staff. That it is sitting in the finance department, or the marketing team are the ones with all the tools, and yet our visitor services teams are the ones who have the most context to add to that data. Of all of those things that went on, on that really big weekend that made it feel heavy, and they’re also the people that can provide the most actionable moments to that data as well when we see those opportunities for improvements of, “How can we repeat that beautifully scalable, seamless weekend and do more of them in the future?”
David Hingley: I do think that one of the things that came out of the pandemic, and I think it’s still really important, is when we had to be really careful in terms of how many people were in a building, how we operated the space. We had to keep so much space, I mean there were legal reasons as well. While we needed to do that, it really focused the mind on what we were able to do. And what we were able to do was get really live information from surveys that say “How safe did visitors feel?” Cause that was the number one thing above everything else. How safe did people feel so that they would continue to visit and come back? And because we were getting that almost as a live feed sort of at least kind of once a week download, we could make changes and we could see how those changes were affecting the experience in an exhibition, for example. And we could do that kind of week on week. I don’t know if you could do it any more than that. I mean, you could possibly do it more than that, but sort of week on week was really manageable actually. And I think one of the things that I have taken away is, another one of these areas where I think it’s really important to work as consistently across organizations is because visitors were going to your competitors, if you want to call them competitors, or going to, you know, I think people will always go to the National Gallery and Tate because we’ve got different art, different exhibitions, but, you know, people having both those experiences. Safety and fun. So to be able to make sure that, to a degree it’s aligned in terms of people won’t go to the National Gallery and think, “Gosh, it’s brilliant they did that there, and yet Tate does none of it.” I mean, if stuff’s working for visitors, you kind of wanna grow the whole experience rather than just focus on an individual area, an individual site. Because it just doesn’t work because they always come back to you and say what they saw elsewhere that they loved.
Angie Judge: And speaking of these pandemic trends, we are sort of in this very weird time of hyperinflation and these tight labor markets that we were talking about before. Are we in a spot right now where the industry is understaffed on the frontline?
David Hingley: I think it’s a challenge. I’ve heard different things. We’re fortunate that we’ve recently been recruiting and we’ve had a really good response. I’d like to think some of that’s because people can see what it is we’re offering and that we are absolutely saying there are opportunities to work as an apprentice, for example, and kind of move through the visitor experience. So kind of a career ladder if you like, but also we’re being quite open and saying “If you’re looking for an experience, come to Tate, work with us in visitor experience and we’ll hopefully help you to think beyond Tate if that’s where you need to go.” So I hope that’s insulating us if you’d like a little bit from that. But it’s definitely tight and there are other opportunities. So I think it’s gonna be increasingly, and I know this has been a trend over quite a period, but I think it’s kind of accelerated why it’s important that this is a career. We live in a gig economy world, and you can choose to work on contracts where you might come and support different organizations for different events, et cetera. And that really suits some people. But I think it’s being able to say that there’s another option, and the other option is kind of building a career in the sector. You can’t always necessarily compete on the salary because some of these gig economy roles, you know, somebody’s desperate and they’ve got an event to run so they can offer a good hourly rate, and it’s up to people whether they want to take that, understandably, they may need to, but I think to be able to say, “Look, there’s different ways of doing this” and just kind of be really honest about what it is you can offer, I think that is hopefully helping us to insulate a little bit against that, but it, it’s definitely a tough market at the moment.
Angie Judge: What are you looking for in the staff that you’re hiring that are new to this role?
David Hingley: I’m looking for people who are passionate about people. Actually, first and foremost, I think it’s great if they’re passionate about, in Tate’s case art, but equally sometimes some of the people who maybe come from a retail background, et cetera, who are great with people. I mean, our whole selection processes have moved to looking at personal interactions, group exercises, those kind of things to see how people are at talking to and engaging with other people. Because quite often people who don’t have that arts background actually suddenly come across an artist that they’ve genuinely never heard of who might be at some upcoming exhibition, and they become so interested and excited because it’s completely new to them that they can carry that passion through as well. So people. Love interacting with people. It’s people who I think understand the variety of what you’re gonna deal with in a front-of-house role that, you know, if you’re open to it all, you genuinely will get every type of person in. You need to be able to think about what that will be like and will feel like, and we support people obviously, but you know, sometimes you can have difficult conversations. It’s not always easy doing the kind of roles that we’re talking about. And then I’m absolutely happy for people to come in and work with us and get early career understandings of what the culture sector is and then they may move on to work in a different area. think it’s always good that people have had front-of-house experience. But I’m also looking for people who do want to build a career in front-of-house, who do want to be the managers of the future and can see the opportunity to kind of shape what the experience is by moving up in that.
Angie Judge: And where can these careers take people in front-of-house for visitor experience and cultural institutions?
David Hingley: Yeah, I’ve seen people that we’ve placed in different roles within the same institution. I think what tends to happen is people who are really passionate about it use this as a springboard. We’ve had people go and join our learning team, so move from visitor experience to kind of more formal learning and engagement. So that’s great. Looking after family program development, that kind of thing. We’ve had people who’ve moved into curatorial roles, particularly in areas like if you think about kind of program production and delivery. So looking kind of more broadly beyond the day-to-day delivery. So they’ve already got those skills. They take them, they take that on. We’ve had people join other teams simply because they’re just really good at customer interaction. We have visitor communications teams who look after a lot of the emails, calls, et cetera. So members of my teams have moved into that. And then I’ve had people who’ve kind of taken first management roles, if you like. When I went to historic royal palaces at Hampton Court, whenever anybody left, we used to try and encourage people to think of it as us gaining another museum. So we had people who’d kind of start with us, build up their experience and then go and run. I think we had somebody who went to Oxford Castle for example, someone who went to the Ashmolean, which is another museum, and they were able to take what they’d learnt and then kind of take the next step up and then bring us back to “Crossing the Floors”. Then that’s increased the network and we’ve got somebody else that we can contact and say, “Can we work together in the future?”
Angie Judge: And what would your advice be if somebody wanted to attempt, replicating your initiative in another country or in another city? What would you suggest to them in terms of how do you go about getting something like this off the ground?
David Hingley: I think I absolutely mercilessly pitched to people who I thought would be interested in my personal network. There was a bit of that. I think it was very much around, I think people were keen to do it, but I think we’re all, we’ve talked about it. It’s tough at the moment in the labor market and we’ve got a lot going on, so you can become quite focused on your own problems and your own institution. So actually I think the group we’ve set up, we’re also a bit of a self-help group at times where it’s like, we have worked out together how this is gonna work, and I think that’s been important. Without a huge amount of investment, et cetera. But you know, what I’ve been able to say is that I’m one of the bigger teams involved, so we can take on kind of quite a lot of the admin and such to support other smaller organizations. And one of our organization values is to be kind, though I think in a sense it’s like what are your organizational values? Do they align with the other organizations you’re gonna work with? Because then, you know, you’ve got probably a very similar start point. And the other element is just sorting out the admin because you can imagine the admin people thinking, “Are they gonna go and work at a different site? What’s the insurance? How are you gonna cover that? Different organizations can have different kinds of security clearance levels.” So getting all that sorted in the background has been important.
Angie Judge: I can’t even begin to imagine what that looks like.
David Hingley: There’s quite a lot of spreadsheets, you know. That’s good. Once we’ve got it off the ground, I’m sure as well it’ll get easier.
Angie Judge: Well, thank you very much for taking a few minutes out of your day and all of that paperwork to share your “Crossing the Floors” initiative with us. It’s incredibly exciting to hear in this post covid world that the way in which cultural institutions came together to collaborate and to work together as an industry as continuing on in lots of different ways, I’m really excited about that.
David Hingley: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops and I’m kind of excited. We’ve got other organizations who are interested, so hopefully we can just build on that and as you say, keep working together post Covid.
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