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The Ultimate Volunteer Responsibility — Developing Tour Programs

Your institution’s most creative resource for fresh public programs is already part of your organization. Docents! When docents are used as a resource for program development their participation and quality levels will stay very high. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) docents are responsible for developing and executing the entire CAF Tour Program. Through the work of CAF docents, the organization was able to provide tours to 116,000 tourists in 1999. The Tour Program produced 37.7% of CAF’s total revenue in 1998. Our tours are conducted on foot, by bus, boat, bike, and train and cover the Chicago metropolitan area. Topics range from specific Chicago architects to a survey of downtown buildings. These tours are developed by docents and executed through two docent committees, the “Tour Committee” and the “New Projects Chicago Committee.”

Developing the Core and Neighborhood Tours

Core and neighborhood tours are managed by the Docent Council’s Tour Committee. Core tours are held on a regular daily or weekly basis highlighting popular sites. Neighborhood tours are offered 2 to 12 times per year and focus on lesser known architecture outside the city center. Each of the tours in our tour catalogue has been the inspiration and creation of a docent.

The Tour Committee is authorized to develop and implement the Foundation’s regularly scheduled public tours conducted under the auspices of the Foundation. The committee monitors the quality of these tours — both the content and the tour manuals — and the committee assists the Foundation staff in publicizing them.

The committee meets one evening each month and is comprised of approximately ten members. The committee includes both recent graduates of the training program and experienced docents. Two staff members, the manager of tours, and the vice president of public programs and tours serve on the committee. They provide advertising, budget, and attendance information, as well as a link between staff and docent activities.

Developing A Tour

Any docent may bring an idea for a new tour to the Tour Committee. The Chicago Theater District Tour, for instance, came from the suggestion of a committee member after seeing that the City of Chicago had revitalized its Theater District. This docent volunteered to write an outline for a 1.5 hour walking tour and become tour director.

Each tour needs to have a tour director who is annually awarded 16 tour hours of credit (docents are required to give a minimum of 30 tour hours annually) for content development, coordination, docent recruitment, and scheduling. The tour director for the Chicago Theater District Tour coordinated her research efforts with some members of the new docent training class as final research projects.

Throughout the whole process, the Chicago Theater District Tour director periodically submitted her work to the Tour Committee for approval. Several committee members attended a trial run of the tour with the tour director. After the Tour Committee gave its approval, the tour director recruited other docents for training and submitted dates, times, and a description for the next year’s tour catalogue.

Each year, the Tour Committee evaluates tours and decides the schedule for the upcoming year. This evaluation is based on the following criteria:

  • What was the recorded attendance on the tour for each year?
  • If attendance is falling off, should the tour go on hiatus for a few years?
  • Is the time of day, day of week, and time of year that the tour is scheduled appropriate, or does it conflict with any other CAF or city programs?
  • Are we advertising and promoting appropriately?
  • Did we miss any obvious (or not so obvious) media such as community newspapers?

To ensure quality, we’ve implemented a tour content evaluation system, whereby 1/3 of all tours are reviewed by committee members annually. Each tour has a Tour Committee liaison who does an evaluation every three years by reviewing the tour manual, attending public tours, and confirming sufficient docent staffing.

Developing The Tour Catalogue

The tour catalogue is a marketing tool used to reach CAF’s 5,500 members and the general public. Preparing the tour catalogue is a four month process. Beginning in September, the Tour Committee contacts all 68 tour directors to inquire about their interest in offering their tour for the next year. Tour directors are provided a current description of their tour from the catalogue copy and asked to make any changes. They must submit the dates they want to offer their tour, an updated list of docents trained for their tour, and proof of updated tour manual content.

Once the tour directors have submitted their paperwork, the Tour Committee sits down in front of a huge calendar and pieces together the tour schedule. The Committee practices a type of “asset allocation” whereby there are only 4-6 tours on a given day, and different types of tours (walking, bike, bus, etc.) are spread out evenly.

The CAF’s graphic designer provides the design and layout of the tour catalogue and takes it to print. And, viola! Another year’s worth of programs is sent to our membership and interested public!

Special Tours and the New Projects Chicago Committee

Another important component of our tour program is the work of the New Projects Chicago Committee. The New Projects Chicago Committee works closely with CAF staff to provide one-time-only tours in conjunction with our exhibition offerings, new developments in the city fabric, or special opportunities in collaboration with other institutions. Docents working on these projects must research and write a tour on short notice and deliver a quality program. The Committee membership is made up of a small number of very active, well-practiced docents.

This Committee began in the 1980’s, during a tremendous building boom in Chicago. To show off the work of fellow architects, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago Chapter contacted CAF to request help putting together a one time only, day long, behind-the-scenes tour of skyscrapers while under construction (entitled “Chicago by Design”).

In 1990, CAF initiated its own special tours program. We currently try to offer 3 to 4 tours of special projects each year, as well as special tours to run in conjunction with major exhibits.

Developing the Special Tours

The development of special tours for the 1997 exhibit SOM at 60 is a good example of this process. The architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings &Merrill (SOM), designers of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock building, contacted us with the idea of using our space to show an exhibition they developed to celebrate 60 years of their designs. We wanted to provide public programming around the exhibition to make it a multi-faceted educational experience including lectures and tours. The challenges were many. Docents had three months to develop tour outlines; research enriching content; recruit, train, and schedule docents; and promote these tours to the public.

The New Projects Chicago Committee co-chairs collaborated with the staffs of CAF and SOM. In turn, the New Projects Chicago Committee quickly went to work creating an outline of SOM’s most important Chicago commissions in four different geographic locations throughout the city. The research was delegated to committee members, and those docents met with representatives from SOM to prepare information for the content of the tour manual. Once the tour manual was assembled, the committee reunited to review the material and practice on a trial run.

What the committee eventually produced was a weekend of walking tours — Franklin Street Corridor, Central Loop, and City front Center. Each of these areas has a large concentration of SOM’s work. Three buildings had interior tours – the Inland Steel Building, 33 W. Monroe, and the NBC Tower. SOM also wanted CAF docents to provide tours of their latest work, the expansion of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall into three buildings (renamed Symphony Center). As an opening celebration. Symphony Center hosted a 24-hour “Day of Music.” Every 15 minutes during a 12-hour period, CAF docents would lead the public on tours of the new facility as a part of the celebration. More than 10,000 people attended!

Allowing docents to create the tours they lead not only produces powerful programs, but encourages the development of the intellectual and leadership skills of individual docents.

Barbara Hrbek is the volunteer Coordinator for The Chicago Architecture Foundation, located in Chicago, IL. Previously , Ms. Hrbek contributed an article to The Docent Educator offering a descriptive overview of the Chicago Architecture Foundations docent program (Vol 8, No. 1, Autumn 1998).

Hrbek, Barbara. “The Ultimate Volunteer Responsibility–Developing Tour Programs,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 12-13.

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