Monday, January 25, 2016

Anatomy of a Front Desk

For those of us who eat, sleep and breathe children's museums, there's an email listserv called CHILDMUS.  It's a place to geek out about all the little details of our field. However, Childmus doesn't allow photos.  So I thought I'd use this blog to reply to this question from Leanne Poellinger at the Children's Museum of La Crosse, Wisconsin:

What is the set-up of your museum's front desk?

I told you it was geeky.  You've been warned.

At Kidcity, with 100,000 visitors a year, the front desk has to do a lot.  

• It's where visitors check in or buy a membership or book a party - it's the literal Point of Sale.
• It's where visitors go to ask a question or get restaurant recommendations or an ice pack for a boo-boo.
• It's where visitors (the tiny ones) come for the "goodbye" ritual of getting a hand-stamp on their way home.
• It's where visitors (the grown-up ones) run when they can't find their child.
• It's where our manager needs easy access to all information about the museum - schedules, money management, staffing, maintenance work.
• It's where we keep a supply of all the brochures and printed pieces, plus stuff for making quick signs.
• It's where we process all the orders for our tiny bookstore, which is so small it doesn't need a separate clerk - people just come around to the front desk to check out.
• It's where we make memberships - laminating new cards and making member packets.
• It's where we sort the mail and leave messages for each other.  And, it's where the UPS guy delivers.
• It's where all the floor staff come to sign in and get their assignments.
• It's where we store a compact vacuum, a butler broom, all the keys (so many keys), and some cleaning supplies.
• It's where we have technology, like our computer/Point of Sale system, our card swipe, our phone, our battery backup, and our walkie-talkies.
• It's where we surf the web.
• It's home base for our manager who runs the operations of the museum - delegating to floor staff, ordering supplies, making sure everything happens the way it should.
• And finally, it's where staff share treats they brought from home - or bagel runs - or Neil's Donuts from Wallingford, CT (worth the trip, so they say).

So how do we have room for everything?  One word:  IKEA.

Just kidding.

The basic rule is "Everything Has a Place".  And Ikea.

The Layout

Like the rest of Kidcity, our front desk was built by artists who thought a lot about how it looks and feels - both for visitors and staff.  Our amazing carpenter (the multi-talented Matt Niland!) used 3/4 inch birch plywood to build nooks for all our storage - we went with an orange and yellow palette since we were feeling sort of '70's that week.  And our live-edge front counter is a work of art by City Bench's Ted Esselstyn.    The canopy overhead, providing a little drama, is also by Ted.

Where the visitors stand, there's a high counter, with a card swipe machine, and racks for our brochures, and a pile of exhibit maps.    
There's also a lower counter at wheelchair (and kid) height, with our hand-stamps and washable inkpads, a tissue box, a canister of wet-ones, some Purell, a rack of downtown maps and a binder with the menus of all the kid-friendly restaurants within walking distance.  

The back of the front desk is open to the bookstore, coatroom and our snack area - all somewhat visible to the person sitting at the desk.

Here's the lobby, viewed through the train layout designed by artist Scott Kessel.  We built this train so that kids would have something to distract them while their folks are busy at the front desk.  That's the coatroom to the right, and the bookstore and snack area behind the front desk.  Click to make the photo bigger, so you can say hi to Cait sitting at the desk!  (photo by Sassy Mouth)

On a facebook comment, one of our visitors said it seemed like we have lots of staff at Kidcity, but maybe that's because you're never far from the person at the front desk.   The museum's footprint is like a squat H, with the front desk in the center hall.  So you pass it again and again during your visit.

The Storage

We use IKEA's awesome metal (and already-assembled) little drawers called the Helmer ($39.99). Each drawer is a bit bigger than a sheet of copy paper, and we use some drawers as "mailboxes" for staff, others to hold markers, scissors/staplers, brochures, old membership forms.  We've got two in a stack - and we write labels on each drawer so you can find stuff quick.

Open Shelves
These are built-in shelves that hold the drawers and our binders.  Binders with time sheets.  Binders with birthday party schedules.  Binders with front desk procedures - like how to sell a membership or change the outgoing phone message.  Binders that hold the "Building Log" on everything that needs maintenance - the phones, the elevator, the HVAC system.  Anything that won't fit in a binder goes in a wooden magazine holder (KNUFF at Ikea, $9.99 for two).  Looks classy & hides the crap!

Covered Shelves
We have a few shelves in a cabinet that has sliding doors, for ugly stuff like mailing materials, bins of keys, oversize stationery supplies.

We built some deep drawer bins with plexi on the front to hold bulky stuff, like supplies for making gift boxes for memberships.  (We use shiny take-out food containers and fill with colored paper shred, and stick the membership card and brochure in there.  Pretty!)  Also, the bins have room for some personal stuff - coats, snacks, etc.

Our floor staff works from a list of tasks that change by day (in addition to the usual "picking up toys" part of the job).   It's a cycle of tasks, like washing plastic fruits and vegetables, cleaning wall vents and baseboards, and washing windows that goes on a schedule to save us from letting something slip through the cracks.  Once it's on these lists, it WILL get done.  These heavy-duty laminated lists hang on a hook at the front desk so staff can come back and check off the stuff they've done.

The Closet

We built a tiny closet around an electrical panel at the front desk - it's about 4 sq. ft - but it gives us a safe place for a shallow shelf of cleaning supplies, and a rack of brooms/vacuums.  Plus, it's where we hang the world's thinnest stepstool for reaching those high shelves.


We built a rack on the wall to hold those memberships that someone buys...but then they go off to play.  They come back later and pick it up.

Counter Space
This is SO important.  You need a little space for sorting whatever project you're working on at the desk.  We don't have quite enough.  It's especially handy when someone brings in a big tray of cupcakes for a staff birthday...

In Closing...

Since our earliest days as a museum, we learned to put our best person at the front desk - it's not a job for the faint of heart.  It's not just about running the cash register - it's about having someone who can respond to both crisis and serendipity (since nice things happen too, not just problems.)   It takes someone warm and friendly - and also someone with the ability to chill.  Oh, and did I mention a steel-trap mind and ability to organize the heck out of anything?  Our manager - the amazing Cait Pierce (soon to be Cait Alexander!) - embodies these qualities, and most days, you'll find her at the desk.  Plus, she has built a team of people who know how to communicate "Kidcity" to our visitors when they sit in that chair (Shout Out to Assistant Manager Carl Chisem - celebrating 10 years at Kidcity!).

Our front desk is Command Central at Kidcity.   Now you know all there is to know!