Garfield Conservatory

Xola Team
Xola Team
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Garfield Conservatory




  • How Xola helped Garfield Park Conservatory reopen
  • Reopening in phases
  • Gaining clarity around their donors and visitors using Xola’s reporting features


“It’s really nice to have a vendor like Xola that’s a partner and not just a vendor,” says Jennifer Van Valkenburg, President and CEO.“ It’s been great as we reinvent ourselves and our whole thought process on how many people we allow in and the time ticket entry, and we’ve never had to look at any of those things before. So, having a tool in place that we could just modify to meet our needs and having that extra support from the customer service perspective is great.”

Jennifer is the president and CEO of Garfield Park Conservatory. Before COVID-19, Garfield Park Conservatory saw an average of 260,000 visitors a year at their Chicago garden venue.

Day to day, we’re a cultural institution,” says Jennifer. “Pre-COVID, we were open 365 days a year with free admission and a suggested donation. So, people come to the conservatory to visit the rooms of the conservatory. We have a palm house, desert house, Aroid house, a Sugar from the Sun exhibition that talks about photosynthesis and how we get food, and a children’s garden. So, we’re an indoor experience as well as an outdoor experience.”

But, when the pandemic hit and shelter in place orders were put in place in Chicago back in March, they were forced to rethink their entire operational strategy seemingly overnight before reopening in July.

This started by only opening their outdoor facilities.

“We have 10 acres of outdoor gardens,” says Jennifer.  “We’ve moved all of our staff outside, all of our operations outside, and it’s been a very interesting experience to change our entire operation to being an outdoor facility.”

Another big shift was implementing timed, ticketed entry.

Lydia Van Slyke, Garfield Conservatory’s Youth and Family Programs Manager says, “I’ve been part of the transfer to timed and ticketed entry because Xola was something that we pretty much only used for tours and school field trips before COVID-19.

Now, we have added a new listing for our outdoor gardens so that we could have those timed entry reservations to make sure that we don’t have too many people waiting in line and know exactly what our capacity is. That’s been really helpful.”

This operational shift means a shift to self-service booking giving visitors more control.

“Having the visitor make their own booking puts it in their hands,” says Lydia. “They’re able to make changes. There’s not any sort of cross-communication that can happen. So, that’s really nice. And the payment methods are easy.”

Another change was switching from hosting in-person school fields to engaging virtual learning experiences, which is far from an easy feat when they host 20,000 students in their facility each year.

“I’d say the team has done an amazing job of pivoting to online learning because usually, we have 20,000 schoolkids a year here physically,” says Jennifer. “So, in some ways, it’s great because we can serve more kids, but missing the physical connection to the plants is hard. So, we’ve done a lot of great virtual tours and just a really great pivot to online digital learning and resources.”


Garfield Conservatory has implemented a phased approach to reopening.

“We followed specifically the Chicago city guidelines,” says Jennifer. “We started off in phases with the first week being local residents only. So, we did a mailing with a postcard, and we invited local neighbors to come visit the gardens first. We feel like that gave us a lot of time to work out the kinks in our operations outside by welcoming a smaller group in phase 1.

Then the second week, we added members. So, we weren’t driving revenue right away, but we were beginning to welcome guests and testing out our operations before we opened to the general public.

Then on July 15th, we opened to the general public. And since then, we’re seeing about 200 to 250 visitors per day on average.”

The team is using Xola to manage and enforce social distancing capacity restrictions.

Lydia adds, “What we have is 200 people every two hours max. So, 25 people every 15 minutes that we let in. And so we know that we’re never going to be more than 200 people at the place.”

They’ve also put in place extensive measures to keep guests safe.

“We enforce mandatory face masks, and we have a lot of new signage,” says Jennifer. “We have our staff stationed at least six feet apart behind two tables deep as they welcome visitors, so they’re not in close proximity. We have new cleaning solutions and procedures that we’ve implemented with our facilities management company. And, behind the scenes for staff, they’ve modified their cleaning approach where they now have a colored towel system.”

In addition, they have been implementing additional changes in real-time, as they adjust to visitor demand and feedback.

For example, they are using Xola’s Abandoned Booking Recovery Email to not only recover lost visitor bookings but also as a feedback mechanism for their team.

“People would get the abandoned booking email,” says Jennifer. “Then, they would send an email and say, ‘Oh yeah, I abandoned this because I couldn’t figure out how to take the donation off, or I couldn’t figure this out.’ And so, when we saw a pattern of regular emails about certain things, we could go in and adjust it and make it more user-friendly.”


“I didn’t use Xola before this because it was solely for the field trip reservations, but now that I am using it, I feel like the analytics are awesome,” says Jennifer. “It’s helping me see the average donation per visitor. It’s helping me see who’s choosing what option.”

In addition, this means they have expanded their database with the mailing addresses, emails, and donation information from anyone who donates.

Jennifer adds, “For the first time, we can capture the contact information of people that make a reservation. We’ve never required reservations before. So, a lot of times, people would come to the conservatory and make a donation when they got there, and they would just use their credit card at our front desk and swipe, and that would be it, or they would drop cash in a donation box. So, we had no contact information.”

They are planning to use this information and insights from Xola’s built-in reports to inform future marketing and fundraising efforts. In addition, Jennifer and her team know that anytime they have any questions around the reporting capabilities or any other features within Xola, they can count on the support team.

Jennifer says, “I feel like the customer service is top-notch, so you can figure it out on your own, but also if you hit a stumbling block, it’s really proactive and helpful.”


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