February 18, 2020

What Can Zoos and Aquariums Learn From Art at Airports?

Those of us who travel a lot may seldom think about what goes on behind the scenes at PHL, ORD, LAX or (your local airport here), but we’ve come to learn that airports and zoos share similar visions. Meet this month’s guest interviewee, Leah Douglas, Director of Guest Experience at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) to get the inside scoop on this surprising insight.

As a frequent traveler, ZA Senior Advisor Kathy Wagner had long been intrigued by PHL’s art exhibits. When she met Leah through their work together on the Board of Directors of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and learned that Leah was the person responsible for these installations, the conversation took off. Then, when Kathy heard that Leah was Director of Guest Experience at the airport, she immediately made the connection with the zoo and aquarium world.

Leah founded PHL’s Exhibitions Program in 1998 as one of the first airport arts programs in the country. Since then, the program has gained national acclaim, and Leah has gone on to become the facility’s first Director of Guest Experience—still overseeing the arts exhibits, but now with a more extensive portfolio of responsibilities. The Airport’s Arts Program was recently honored by the City of Philadelphia for its outstanding 20-year milestone showcasing the work of local art and artists for more than 30 million travelers who visit the airport each year. Leah will receive another honor in March when Philadelphia’s University City Arts League recognizes her for her ground-breaking work curating more than 300 exhibitions at PHL since 1998. 

ZA:        I was kind of surprised by your title—I’m familiar with this in zoos, aquariums, and hospitality but not in the world of airports. What does this involve? Do all airports have this job?

LD:        The idea of Guest Experience (a.k.a. Customer Experience) in airports is relatively new within the industry. At PHL, we consider guests to be inclusive of our passengers, our stakeholders, and all employees.

Passengers’ expectations of airports increase every year. Airports are much more than a facility to transport people from one place to another. Today, airports offer a wide variety of amenities that include food and beverage options, shopping, arts and cultural activities, tours, lactation rooms, pet facilities, therapy dog programs, quiet rooms, virtual libraries, and events. PHL strives to be the airport of choice for our hometown passengers and for passengers who are connecting through Philadelphia because there are other alternatives within the region.

ZA:        You know, you could have been talking about zoos and aquariums! We’re seeing more of our clients creating dedicated “quiet rooms” or “sensory inclusive” programs, and certainly our field has upped their game in food and beverage. Plus, many zoos and aquariums are hosting arts programs, concerts, and festivals.

ZA:        So, how else is an airport like a zoo—jokes aside!

LD:        I recently did an interview with Artjaw.com where I likened the airport to a city, a parallel that also applies to a zoo:The airport is like a small city, with many different constituencies working under one roof—there’s the mall with its shops and restaurants, all of the various airlines, law enforcement, electricians, engineers, planners, a sign shop, and maintenance department—just to name a few, as well as various government agencies and endless contractors. There’s even a performing arts program and, of course, art galleries. I hope passengers find an exhibit or two that they can identify with as they meander around the terminals waiting for their flights.”

Because all of these constituencies are working toward providing excellence in service to our customers, I hold myself and my position to this high standard—described best by a quote I like from an expert in airport customer service training: “Guest Experience is the synergy created when an airport’s ability to exceed its customers’ needs and expectations consistently matches the customers’ perception that their needs and expectations are well met.” —Joanne Paternoster, Airports Council International.

ZA:         It’s interesting that you compared the airport to a city—when I was responsible for visitor services at the Philadelphia Zoo years ago, I always used that same analogy—we had shops and food service, trash trucks, public safety, maintenance, grounds management, and thousands of diverse users!

ZA:        You have an arts background, right? Tell us about your career path.

LD:        I have a B.F.A. from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, and I describe my career path as self-taught—or coming in through the back door—as I don’t have a degree in curatorial studies. I often say that everyone should have a fine arts background because you’re taught to think creatively; to problem solve; that your first idea isn’t always the best one; to process critiques of your work; and to meet deadlines.

I worked for about 10 years at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. First as an administrative assistant, and through happenstance, when the director left soon after my arrival, I eventually became the Gallery Director. During this time, I had been interested in organizing exhibitions in non-gallery spaces to bring art out into the public realm. I curated exhibitions in apartments and in buildings available for rent. When I heard about the opportunity at the airport, I was intrigued because about 85,000 people each day access PHL—in addition to the employees who work there—and I would have an opportunity to share my passion more broadly and see art make a greater impact.

ZA:        Where does the art program fit in the overall guest experience at PHL?

LD:        To better understand this format for exhibiting art, I visited other airports to see their programs first-hand including San Francisco, Atlanta, and Miami.

I decided the best approach for Philadelphia and the region was to only present artwork and collections by local artists and arts institutions. This was before the term “sense of place” became common within the industry. And that is one of the first connections between the Exhibitions Program and Guest Experience—creating a sense of place or embodying what your region offers that is unique.

Over the years, the Exhibitions Program has truly become part of PHL’s culture and identity. It elevates the experience at PHL; it’s a diversion for our passengers; it’s engaging; it’s a reflection of the City’s image; and it provides visibility for the region’s arts and cultural life. The exhibitions also strive to ensure that passengers have a positive and memorable experience at PHL, and it helps make us the airport of choice.

The Exhibitions Program is proactive in collecting passenger comments through a survey located at each exhibition site and via social media. There have been passenger comments that noted, to paraphrase, they choose to connect through PHL to see the new exhibitions even if their ticket is more expensive; a passenger connecting through PHL was looking at one of the history exhibitions and said that they wanted to come back and visit Philadelphia; and many comments that state that the art made their layover much more enjoyable.

ZA:        What’s been the greatest challenge in your new role?

LD:        Because Guest Experience is a new department at PHL, the Assistant Director of Guest Experience and I are starting to socialize the concept internally and with our stakeholders. Our first major accomplishment occurred in January 2020 and consisted of a two-day workshop led by a world-renowned Airport Guest Experience facilitator who presented the concept and the “why.” The participants worked to collectively create a guest experience vision and promise and drafted the first-cut action items/next steps. Attendees included PHL executives and staff across all departments. This initiative has started internally with the Division of Aviation and will expand to all airport-wide stakeholders. Guest Experience will be a culture change as we move towards a more customer-centric mindset. In addition, we will strive to make decisions from data-driven information.

ZA:        Again—I see lots of similarities here with our work. Zoos and aquariums are increasingly looking outside their doors for expertise to guide them through planning and culture change—and that usually includes a focus on guest experience—starting with the “why” and the vision, then moving through action items and implementation—and, as you put it, a promise.

ZA:        What does a typical day look like?

LD:        There is no such thing as a typical day. One of my sayings has been, “If you don’t like change, don’t work at an airport.” A truly ideal day would be to immerse myself solely in the art exhibitions program because that’s my passion. But as my position has grown over the years, I focus on the bigger picture and that’s to work every day to improve PHL’s guest experience.

ZA:        Sounds like a lot of us who entered the business because we were passionate about animals and wildlife conservation, and then found ourselves needing to focus on the bigger picture as our positions changed and our field changed—we need to understand how to have a positive impact.

ZA:        So what’s your advice for employees of the zoo/aquarium industry? What can we learn from airports? What are key takeaways for our field?

LD:        An excellent guest experience is when an airport (or a zoo or aquarium) listens and reacts to the customers’ needs. This helps the passenger feel more at ease and relaxed, translating to repeat business, higher spending at the concessions, greater revenue for the airport, and a positive image for the airport and the city.

Take care of your people and highlight your culture—including seeking external advice as needed.

Make sure your guest experience—your institution—creates a sense of place. Personalize it by focusing on what makes your facility and city unique or special.

ZA:        As Philadelphians, our local Zoo Advisors team and I want to personally thank you for making our travel so much more interesting, engaging, and beautiful. We look forward to viewing continued exhibits as we pass through the corridors of Philadelphia International Airport, and to translating your guest experience insights into the missions of our zoos and aquariums.

Additional Food for Thought: Delta’s Personalized Customer Experience

At the recent CES conference, Delta Airlines and partner Misapplied Sciences announced they will launch the first-ever PARALLEL REALITY(TM) beta experience in mid-2020 to allow multiple customers to see personalized content tailored to their unique travel journey on a single digital airport screen—at the exact same time and in their preferred language—such as wayfinding and personalized travel information.

According to Albert Ng, CEO of Misapplied Sciences, Delta’s technology partner, ‘ “While we will start with Delta customers in Detroit, eventually Parallel Reality technology can be used to create seamless, engaging and personalized experiences in nearly any out-of-home venue—ranging from stadiums to theme parks to convention centers and more.” ‘

Tech Opportunities for Zoos & Aquariums

Imagine the possibilities of this technology in use at zoos and aquariums! Institutions could create customized visits, signage, and interpretives personalized to individual guests based on their interests, demographics, or how they experience your campus and site. The level of personalization and the ability to scale up a customized experience to hundreds of thousands of guests is endless! Not to mention that institutions could continuously refine the personalized and unique visits based on data analysis of visitor profiles and preferences from previous visits to motivate greater conservation action with our guests, maybe even driving greater spending or giving.

Check out the article and video simulation here.

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