Member Dispatches from the Front Lines: The National WWII Museum
September 28, 2020
By Chris Michel, Senior Director of Retail and Parking Services at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana
Six months ago, The National WWII Museum made the decision to close its doors in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. I remember that day well, and every day that followed. This was a day of fear and unknowing. But, as a leader in my museum, this had to be a day of leadership -- and, more importantly, a day of opportunity. I remember telling my team that everything was fine and we would get through it. But the fact is, I did not know if everything would be fine. But my team needed my optimism. I never lied to them, but I did make every effort to find the positive and emphasize that when we talked.
We transitioned into working remotely. We were very fortunate that The National WWII Museum continued to pay all staff for several months. We used this opportunity to allow front line retail staff to participate in webinars and online training, mostly focusing on WWII history and customer service. I counted on my management team to keep the front-line staff engaged.
During this time, I was seeking out every meeting and every opportunity to stay engaged with Senior Staff. As a long time retail professional, and a businessman, I knew what was coming. How long can you go with no revenue before you start cutting expenses? And I knew that the number one expense was payroll.
Every person reading this knows that one of the biggest problems Museum Store professionals face is gaining acceptance within the Museum. We all work hard every day to get over that “red-headed stepchild” syndrome. During this time of crisis, it was critical to stay visible and stay engaged. When the time came for the heartbreaking but necessary decisions regarding staff, I wanted to be the person to make those decisions.
I decided to use the budgeting process to open and maintain communication regarding payroll issues. I wrote dozens of drafts of retail budgets showing reduced revenue and reduced payroll costs. Ultimately, I lost 50% of my retail team. During these conversations, I managed to maintain control of who would be laid off. I successfully presented the case that if I was to maximize revenue, I needed the best, most versatile, team members to be successful. The only way that could happen was if I had full control of the process. Many conversations led me to this point, including one particularly robust debate that I was able to influence using facts, figures, and projections that no one knew would work. If you speak with enough confidence and conviction, it must be true, right?
After consulting with my retail leadership team, and listening to their vigorous debate, the list was made. I personally called every retail team member who lost their job. These were the hardest phone calls of my life, but I knew it was even more difficult for those on the other end of the line. This is what I had been working for. I did not want a VP or someone from Human Resources making these calls. This was my team.
On Memorial Day weekend, we reopened. I was able to stay engaged with Senior Staff throughout the planning process. I saw all the signage and health plans. I also saw data that was being used that suggested that our Museum Stores should not open with the museum. Apparently, according to the “experts,” museum stores could not operate in a safe manner for our staff and our visitors. Through constant engagement, and more lively debate, I was able to convince Senior Staff that Museum Stores are an integral part of the guest experience. I cited retailers such as WalMart, grocery stores, and home improvement stores as proof that retail can be operated safely and effectively for all parties. We opened our stores with the Museum, and my scaled down staff was back at work!
The concerns of timed tickets, social distancing, masks, and plexi barriers had all been addressed. But, unfortunately, the general public still did not have a comfort level in visiting places like museums. As you know, the first rule of success is to show up. As an institution and a retail department, we did exactly that. We were here and ready. Eventually, guests began to come. Slowly the momentum began to grow. There were ups and downs, but overall, gradually, we are moving in the right direction for attendance. And what was surprising to some, the guests who attend the museum WANT to visit the stores and want to spend money. Our per caps have been well above our adjusted budget, and revenue is higher than anticipated. I would certainly like to believe that our efforts in customer service training as well as maintaining the right team members are now paying the benefits we hoped and planned for.
Today, six months after the decision to close, visitation is below budget but trending upward. Retail is above budget, and trending upward. We have found a new routine that includes analyzing the numbers constantly. This includes all the numbers. We analyze sales, profit, customer count, inventory dollars, payroll dollars, office supply expenses, and any other number you can imagine. Every dollar matters.
This was supposed to be a blog about reopening, so I will give a few suggestions:
- Force yourself into the conversation. It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about, if you are in it, you can pivot to retail when necessary. If you are not in the conversation, your voice will never be heard. Don’t count on someone else to represent retail. You are the expert!
- Volunteer for any committee or planning team you can volunteer for. Do not accept “no” for an answer. Regardless if this committee is marketing, personnel related, or anything else, the bigger the committee, the more your voice will be heard. It really doesn’t matter what it is; you want to contribute within your institution and increase your visibility. This will get you into more conversations, and give you an opportunity to advocate for your department.
- Count on your retail team. Believe me, they will see the stress you go through, and notice the sleepless nights. Your team wants to help, and they are just waiting to be asked. Use this as a mentoring moment. Not only will your department benefit, you and your team will personally benefit as well.
- Nothing is off limits. By thinking outside the box, more options are available to you. This is a new world, and things that were dismissed as non-viable in the past may be just the solution you need today.
- Study the numbers. They tell a story. You want to be the person telling your story instead of someone selectively pulling figures that don’t tell the whole story.
- Find a confidant or two. You will need someone to talk to. The weight of these decisions is intense, and just talking about it to someone who can listen and advise is critical. This is where your MSA connection comes in. You may have someone in your institution that you can talk to, but there will be cases where you want to talk to someone that is more objective. An MSA colleague from another part of the county might fit that bill perfectly.
Finally, live and work one day at a time. Be nimble and don’t be afraid of changing course on the fly. And if necessary, change course again. While immersed in the moment, don’t forget to continue to make long term plans for the future of your department. This pandemic will not last forever, and those that are prepared for the next step will be those that are most successful. This is all very exhausting, so remember to take care of yourself -- so you can take care of your team, your department, and your institution.
As a former business owner and life-long retail professional, Chris Michel joined The National WWII Museum in the fall of 2009 as Director of Retail Services. Chris has had significant success in growing all aspects of the Museum’s retail operations through the modification of the merchandise mix, enhancement of the web store, and development of a Wholesale Department. Since unfamiliar with Museum Retailing upon his joining the National WWII Museum, Chris credits his decision to join the Museum Store Association, participation in the Annual Conference & Expo, and year round collaboration with other MSA members as keys to his continued success. Chris has served MSA as a South Atlantic Chapter officer, Director at Large on MSA’s Board of Directors and on various committees and workteams.