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Creating A Custom Fit: Docents Tailor-Made for a Walk-in Audience

“Look at the size of that group out there!” exclaims one docent-in-training As the class studies inside the lecture hall, they can see through the large glass windows that eighty people have just walked in on a Saturday morning to take the Historic Skyscrapers tour at 10:00 a.m. The class, somewhat panicked, is experiencing first hand the popularity of architectural tours in Chicago. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) is dedicated to advancing public interest and education in architecture and related design. Approximately 400 docents volunteer their time to conduct some 65 differently themed tours — from skyscrapers to cemeteries. In 2000, about 150,000 have taken an architectural tour. Roughly two-thirds of the tourists are non-Chicago area residents; one-third of these out-of-towners are international. Our program is solely based on walk-in audience participation, and we have a tour and docent training program to foster it.

The Tour Program

Since our business is based on a drop-in audience, we have a dedicated team of staff members who make sure that marketing, scheduling, and ticket sales run smoothly. We estimate how many docents to schedule per tour, based on previous attendance, time of year, weather, media coverage, and city events.

Marketing—The tour department produces an extensive catalogue each year, which outlines the schedule for each of our 65 tours. This catalog is sent to CAF members, hotel concierges, and highway tourist information offices, to name a few. Plenty of catalogues are stocked at the entrances of our two Shop 8c Tour Centers, as well. Our extensive website, also provides great advertising to those interested in our tour program. In fact, this medium is very convenient for the out-of-town tourist.

Our marketing department takes advantage of two important advertising opportunities. The first is to offer coupons when we advertise in directories for conventions or museum magazines. We offer coupon specials that pique the interest of the tourist such as “buy one tour ($10), get the second for half price ($5).” The second opportunity the marketing department uses is that of good media relations. Using a public relations resource, CAF gets articles about its tour programs in major newspapers such as The New York Times, or The Chicago Tribune. The staff and docents certainly feel the beneficial impact of media relations, in the form of doubled attendance! CAF considers media coverage an essential part of its marketing efforts. (It is powerful for docent recruitment, also!) Staff and docents must be prepared to accommodate two – or fifty – tourists on any particular tour. This is where the art and experience of scheduling comes in handy.

Scheduling docents — A staff member is devoted to matching tours and docents. This tour coordinator is responsible for making sure that enough docents are scheduled for the tours and bases these numbers on the season and day of the week. Ideally, a docent will work with a group of fifteen tourists. During the winter months, we will only schedule two docents for the downtown walking tours, with the hope that each docent will take out four or five people each. During the summer months, we will schedule four docents per tour, knowing that fifteen to twenty tourists will be in each group. The hardest months to plan for are those months that the weather is iffy in Chicago – such as October/November and March/April. (One day it may be seventy and sunny, then next will be thirty degrees and snowing.) The tour department will listen to weather reports and keep their eye open for citywide conventions (like the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference) that may unexpectedly attract a bigger than average audience.

The Docent Training Program

The interview—Docents-in-training know from the beginning that they will be touring for the general public. This is the attraction for most applicants. During the interview we discuss how CAF docents have the opportunity to meet people from different countries and from all walks of life. Although they can plan their presentations, we teach from experience that no two tours are ever the same, and that flexibility is key to being a CAF docent. We screen candidates’ projection and presentation style during the interview by asking candidates to come prepared for one minute of public speaking. Not knowing whether a docent will have two or fifty people on a tour, we only chose docents who have the capacity to project their voices and engage their audiences.

Tour observation — Tour observation is a powerful tool to educate docents about the tours. To begin, docents must observe the two tours they are expected to learn before they even come to the interview. This ensures that they know what the job of a CAF docent entails. Upon acceptance into the program, they are required to attend two more additional observation tours prior to the first day of class. Now they have observed how four docents have handled diverse audience members. Before the docent’s first year is over, they must observe five more tours, and write their reactions regarding what they learned from the experiences (i.e. content learned and presentations styles viewed).

A general education — It is our goal that docents-in-training are prepared for general architectural questions through a broad education about Chicago’s commercial buildings. Like many docent programs, we have no canned script that docents are handed. Docents are given the route and the required buildings (with some room for flexibility) and they are asked to write their own tours. The weekly homework assignments are structured to allow the student to spend time learning about each building, so that they will design their own discussions. They are given a general education on concepts such as Chicago history, the birth of the skyscraper, and construction techniques. The payoff for such a lengthy (10-weeks) and in-depth docent education program comes when new docents confidently engage enormously diverse tour groups.

Tour situations — What about those things that we fear the most while working with a general audience? For instance, what does a docent do with that one tourist who is a know-it-all, or dominates the tour with questions? How does a docent accommodate the tour if someone is a slow walker, or uses a wheelchair? What about a tourist who gets pick pocketed? Has a heart attack? Breaks an ankle? These are all very real and valid concerns. We have found it essential to spend time in training to creatively discuss these possible occurrences. Some effective ways are through role-playing or team decision-making exercises. Let the docents decide together how they would handle any given situation.

Presentation techniques — As much as CAF docents are prepared with a general education, engaging the audience and knowing how to handle situations is a challenge all docents must face. We all know working with tour groups that some days are better than others! Each docent training class receives a two-hour workshop with a talented, experienced docent – who also happens to be a theater major. The objective is to give them the skills they need to engage and read their audiences, as well as how to be understood and heard on the street.

  • Get to know your audience from the beginning: Each docent must begin by establishing good rapport with the tourists. Starting the tour by introducing yourself and asking everyone where they are from is key to getting to know your audience. Aside from bonding the group to one another, the docent will get a sense of the level of interest, any language barriers, and any buildings or sites that might have relevance to that person’s home town (such as pointing out our Miro and Picasso sculptures to those from Spain, or pointing out the second Prudential Building— Loebl, Schlossman, and Hackl, 1990, inspired by the Art Deco Chrysler Building — to those from New York.)
  • Add a personal touch: One big reason that the tourists have decided to take a guided walking tour of Chicago (rather than following a guidebook or audiotape) is that the docent offers a chance to interact with a Chicagoan. Docents are encouraged to bring their own experiences of living in Chicago on the tours. “I remember when this building was built. . .” or “For those of you on the tour from Cleveland, Daniel Burnham designed your city plan, too.”
  • Pulling in your audience and making eye contact: It is essential that docents make eye contact with everyone in the group. This means that the docent will have to be mindful of those that are caught in the back of a group of fifty people! Immediately pulling in the audience as close as possible will ensure that everyone can see the building and hear the presentation. Without constantly monitoring with eye contact, a docent has no idea of how to read the audience. Some positive signs include asking a lot of questions or exclaiming “ah-ha”. It may be time to move on if they are looking at their watches, yawning, or have that glazed-over look in their eyes. As mentioned before, each diverse audience will find certain aspects of the tour more intriguing than others.
  • Can they understand you?: The biggest challenge of working with walk-in audiences, and taking them on the busy streets of Chicago for a two-hour walking tour? Communication! In fact, a docent’s lack of communication ability is the number one reason tourists write complaint letters. Part of reading the audience is knowing whether they comprehend the material or not. Several factors might contribute to the problem. For many visitors from other countries, English is a secondary language. This is what the docent will assess when they get to know the audience in the beginning of the tour. The docent will want to make sure to annunciate words and speak slowly. (Beware: Nerves may make a docent speak quickly!) When working with diverse drop-in audiences, a docent must be mindful to define any jargon, ! and not assume that everyone knows what is being said: “Note those spandrels” may not make as much sense as, “Note the dark recessed panels below the windows – we call them spandrels”.

Finally, if they can’t hear you, the tour is a lost cause. Docents must be trained, especially with outdoor city tours, how to use the acoustics available to them on the street. Butting a large group against the side of a building, while facing them, will create an acoustical wall that ensures that everyone will hear the discussion. Stand the same group in the middle of the sidewalk, and the docents voice will get lost in a vacuum of space. Additionally, a docent, like a singer, must learn how to save the vocal cords and use the diaphragm to project as loudly and deeply as possible. (Docents in our training classes are taught to warm up their voices before a tour!) An effective docent will make it very clear from the beginning that if he/she cannot be heard or understood, the tourist must let him/her know. This should be monitored at different points throughout the tour.

The best advice that we can give anyone interested in working with diverse drop-in audiences is to have a plan, but be flexible!

Barbara Hrbek is the volunteer Coordinator for The Chicago Architecture Foundation, located in Chicago, IL. Ms. Hrbek has contributed several previous articles to The Docent Educator, the most recent of which was “The Ultimate Volunteer Responsibility —Developing Tour Programs” (Vol. 9, No. 3).

Hrbek, Barbara. “Creating a Custom Fit: Docents Tailor-Made for a Walk-in Audience,” The Docent Educator 10.3 (Spring 2001): 10-13.


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