From exhibition to exciting visitor experience

“Increasingly, museums around the world are bringing hospitality and retail expertise into the visitor experience offer,” says Matthew McCarthy, front of house manager at Auckland’s Maritime Museum.

He’s a curious hybrid (that may or may not be related to the fact that his mother works in hospitality as a culinary chef and his father trains police dogs). But that’s exactly the point. Matthew’s extensive background in hospitality and expertise in management training make him a modern captain of the innovative museum’s customer service crew.


It also helps that he is an anthropology and archaeology graduate, completing a Masters in Museum Studies. Though that’s not why the 32 year-old Aussie got the gig, he says. “My studies are very focused on collections, but there is a big shift towards visitor experience. While collections and exhibitions are excellent, the focus also has to be on visitors. When someone comes into the museum and is bombarded by the different options, we’re here to find out what they’re interested in and match this with the best exhibitions we have to offer.”

Matthew started as the museum’s duty manager eight months ago. He had just arrived in New Zealand from Australia, where he was front of house manager at Amora Hotels in Melbourne, and state training manager of popular fashion chain Tarocash. “I love training and doing staff reviews. For me it’s really positive and fun,” he says.

Maritime Museum images Image by Bradley Ambrose credit Maritime Museum/Bradley Ambrose
Maritime Museum. Image by Bradley Ambrose.

Matthew had barely dipped his oars at the museum, when he scored his in-house assessor ticket and enrolled his talented team aboard the ServiceIQ’s training programme – New Zealand Certificate in Tourism (Visitor Experience) Level 3. Like retail and hospitality, it’s important his team knows the details of the show – the work by curators and conservators behind the scenes at the museum, the exhibitions and artefacts, and how to provide excellent service and great salesmanship. This involves being able to talk intelligently and in detail about the exhibitions and events, and having the confidence to easily engage with people with wide ranging interests, and from all walks of life, says Matthew.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors discover the fascinating museum’s ocean secrets each year. But to stay in front of the competition for people’s time and attention – which includes shopping, the internet, movies, sports events and many other pass times – you have to commit to ongoing improvement. Hence the inspiration to upskill the team in with fresh knowledge and a national qualification.

“Our front of house team need to know the exhibitions almost as well as the back of house team who curated the show,” says Matthew. “A knowledgeable and helpful team helps build the vibe in the museum. We want to establish a consistently high standard of visitor service and experience. We also wanted to check against national standards that what we are doing is heading in the right direction.”

His team of nine have different levels of experience and range in age from 19 up. To make sure everyone is in the same boat, training is done as a team. And it comes with prizes. “I’ve added incentives and a sales challenge with a bit of a competition to make it more engaging,” says Matthew. “This way, I’m able to make sure they get into and gain value for the benefit of the museum and for their own development.”

The New Zealand Certificate in Tourism (Visitor Experience) is focused on reinforcing the unique culture and character of the experience that a museum or tourism attraction offers visitors. Skills include recognising and satisfying the needs of international visitors, satisfying visitors’ interest in New Zealand’s unique culture by gaining an understanding in Māori customs, language and tourism practices, adding value to sales through conversation, keeping visitors safe by knowing how to use health, safety and security practices, knowing how to deal with visitor complaints, and more.

Along with the team’s individual goals, the Tourism qualification is included as a team objective making it measurable with positive outcomes for the business and staff, says Matthew. “For employers, it will help you understand your staff and how they connect with other parts of your business. For employees, you get a qualification for doing what you do day to day in the museum and it helps strengthen your career prospects.”

Six months down the track and Matthew and his team are close to successfully completing the programme. In true hospitality style, he’s planning the finer details of the graduation ceremony, complete with trophies and hats.