Cultural Venue Customer Service: Thinking About Opening Hours

15th September 2018

THINKING ABOUT THINGS STRATEGICALLY

There was a time when most cultural venues operated to very similar strict and fixed times; often to schedules that suited the staff rather than the visitors. In Europe, hours from 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening were common, and at least one day of the weekend they were closed. In the Gulf, a similar pattern prevailed with starts of 7 or 8 in the morning, finishing around 2 in the afternoon. Fridays definitely saw the doors closed, and oftentimes Saturdays as well.

Increasing demand from the public to access culture and heritage venues at times that suit them, rather than vice versa, is forcing institutions to re-think their opening hours’ strategies. After all, in Dubai for example, there are always plenty of other places to spend one’s free time. The Dubai Mall is open until midnight each night, and Global Village till 1 in the morning on Thursdays and Fridays.

Despite all of the work and energy that is committed to developing, presenting and operating an attractive venue, more consideration needs to be given to possible obstacles that might stop visitors from coming at all. Matching opening hours to our targeted visitors’ possible visiting hours should be a priority.

In thinking about how to deliver great customer service to visitors, an institution needs to consider the vast number of decisions that a person makes before they even arrive at the front door. If this door isn’t open at a time that is convenient to them, they are very unlikely to bother, no matter how much effort has gone into developing and producing a great experience for them. 

WHAT THE VISITOR / CUSTOMER WANTS

Since most culture and heritage organisations identify specific target audiences in their strategic plans, and develop their programmes and communications strategies accordingly, it is important to decide on opening hours in light of these strategies. Time and testing will allow for each institution to work out what suits them best, but some considerations might include the following.*

For schools

-          their visits are likely to be between 1 hour after the school day starts until around 1 hour before it ends, to give classes time to travel to and from school;

-          some venues limit school groups to mornings only, which enables greater freedom for specific programming, without these large (often animated) groups having to be concerned about disturbing other visitors who want quieter, more contemplative experiences.

For daytime workers

-          many venues schedule late night openings to capture this group after they finish work;

-          further services, such as meals and entertainment are really worthwhile, especially  programmes that encourage socializing. (Temporary exhibitions and performances provide perfect springboards to develop such programmes);

-          especially those working Sundays to Thursdays, the weekend is a great time for a culture or heritage activity, yet many venues still close on a Friday perhaps in respect of cultural traditions, and some on a Saturday as well. When almost everything else in the region is open all weekend, the industry is cheating itself of a huge potential audience;

-          innovative evening programmes can encourage teenage and young adult audiences;

-          the days of the week chosen for late night openings vary, with some venues opting for early and mid-week, on the assumption that the targeted group have other weekend plans.

For retirees

-          visit times are generally quite flexible, although the thought of facing large classes of children during school hours results in some in this group to aim for after-school hours, when everything starts to become a little quieter;

-          day-time outings are often preferred, in order to avoid crowds, and busy traffic on the way home.

For tourists

-          this group is harder to gauge, given their diversity;

-          some museums in Dubai report that 8am openings (and even earlier) are often requested by tourists, especially those who are only here for a brief time and from the east of us (having
jet lag results in them being wide awake much earlier than the locals);

-          who try to fill as much into their day as possible, value is placed on extended opening times. Furthermore let’s not forget the appeal of an air-conditioned environment for our busy guests, and the chance to enjoy a sit-down and some locally inspired refreshments. Remember: new opening times bring with them new programming opportunities;

-          many regional visitors travel on the weekend, so being open on Fridays and Saturdays is vital;

-          business tourists in particular value late night openings, where cultural venues provide
ideal chances for independent relaxation after a long day at the trade fair, conference or
in meetings;

-          tourism operators and regulators are a great source of informed knowledge about what suits which group, so knock on their door to find out more.

For families

-          carers of preschoolers really value early-morning visits, which is a time of the day when the children are wide awake and most alert;

-          weekends remain the most popular for family-oriented activities.

For the business sector

-          after-work functions at interesting venues, such as culture and heritage institutions, are appealing to the corporate sector (receptions, exclusive tours, special access to new exhibitions and corporate dinners);

-          similarly, unusual day-time meeting and seminar facilities can be inspirational. Imagine a day-long meeting that has an exclusive tour in the middle, and tailored programmes to encourage creative thinking. Surely this can generate some income to compensate for staff wages for those longer hours.

THE INSTITUTION THAT SERVES

Institutions of course need to balance the needs of their audiences with their own. Longer opening hours place demands on resources such as staff and utilities, each with associated costs. Further to this is the increased wear and tear on the site, and on still ensuring that maintenance, display changeovers and cleaning can happen. The question then will be one of weighing up these costs with the potential of increased visitation, and for enabling greater access to a broader cross-section of the community.

Importantly, it’s not just the times the doors are opening that impact visitation. As suggested above, matching the programme offering to each audience and their anticipated visiting times will be key to making such tailoring really successful. But this just suggests more opportunities for engagement.

Calculating the perfect opening hours schedule requires experimentation along with testing and evaluation, since each venue operates in a specific location, faces particular combinations of competitors vying for the attention of potential visitors, and delivers distinct experiences.

WHEN IS EVERYONE ELSE OPEN?

Checking out when your competitors are open is also beneficial to planning your ideal opening hours’ strategy. To save you time, we have surveyed 81 of the main institutions in the Gulf. See below.

As a sidebar to this survey, for many of these venues it was relatively straightforward to identify when they were open, but for some on the list and a number of those that are not on it, it took a while. Which begs the question: do they really want visitors?

 ·         This introduction to thinking strategically about opening hours at cultural venues in the Gulf region is inspired by having been both guest and museum staffer for many years. This direct experience has been supplemented by tracking industry trends and informed discussions.

Annette Welkamp
Director, Culture Counsel

Culture Counsel has established a collaborative partnership with The Adams Consultancy to offer services and support for culture, heritage, art and museum destinations in the areas of customer and visitor services and events training. Contact us for more information.

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