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Beth Plemmons, The Capitol Visitor’s Center’s Guide to Southern Hospitality

by Hanna Hess for The Hill:  

North Carolina native Beth Plemmons, CEO of visitor services at the Capitol Visitor Center, is a pro at Southern hospitality.

She spent 17 years working in reservations and ticketing positions at the grandiose 19th century Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., then transitioned to guest services at Virginia’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. The Virginia Tech alumna, who studied hotel, restaurant and institutional management, joined the leadership team of the CVC just a few months before the 580,000-foot complex’s Dec. 2, 2008, grand opening.

Touring the CVC with CQ Roll Call this August, Plemmons showed off her favorite item in the Exhibition Hall collection: a marble gavel and wooden triangle that Mount Vernon resident George Washington used to lay the Capitol’s cornerstone in 1793. She stopped just short of calling the Capitol grounds an estate at one point, explaining, “This is the first time I’ve ever not worked as part of an estate.”

Plemmons accepted her first federal government post “on the heels of some controversy,” she said during a wide-ranging interview about her six-year tenure. She took a job as director of visitor services after years of negative press about construction delays and the $621-million structure’s ever-increasing price tag. While such issues are in the rearview mirror, other contentious ones have bubbled up in the intervening years, particularly surrounding the relationship between managers and the front-line employees at the CVC — its tour guides.

Her new employees were also in the midst of a huge, and at times bumpy, transition. From 1876 until the underground expansion’s opening, most building tours were given by the Capitol Guide Service, which operated under the Architect of the Capitol and both chambers’ sergeants-at-arms. Red coats, as they are sometimes called, with multiple graduate degrees in the fields of history or museum studies and decades of experience, were shifted into a new operational structure.

A bill passed by Congress in October 2008 formalized the change. Despite protections in the legislation, guides missed out on some benefits, including student loan repayment and retirement funds. They fought to get them restored, eventually forming an employee union. The law gave the AOC jurisdiction over tours, including tour route regulations, hours of operation and staff-led tours for millions of annual visitors.

“There had been a lot of, I think, different opinions among the members of Congress about how things would work, particularly tours,” Plemmons explained diplomatically in her mild Southern drawl. “When I first came on board that was a real focus, you know, everyone wanted to make sure their constituents were cared for, and taken care of with the same superior service that they were used to.”

Former CVC leader Terrie Rouse, who was fired in 2010 after a three-year tenure marred by standoffish relations with members of Congress and acrimony with employees, described the challenge in a letter to The Hill published after her exit. The former CEO said she knew her position “involved turning around what was a decidedly negative public opinion and navigating between the needs of the visiting public and the Members of Congress and their staff who wanted, and in many cases needed, special treatment from the CVC management and staff.”

The influx of Capitol visitors surged with the opening of the CVC. Guides who once limited their groups to 40 people learned to handle up to 90 people at a time. Many bristled when the library of knowledge they had to offer was compacted into a standardized 30-minute tour.

Current and former tour guides who spoke with CQ Roll Call about how working conditions have evolved feel the emphasis on treating tax-paying citizens who own the Capitol as its “customers” sets the wrong tone.

Plemmons, who oversees the CVC’s restaurant and two gift shops in addition to tours, acknowledged going “through all the growing pains that you would go through as a new organization.”

The mission of the CVC staff, she said, is to “inform and involve and inspire” visitors by talking to them not only about art, architecture and history, but also the process of Congress. She detailed numerous changes she’s put in place to boost employee morale — her “top concern” since taking the helm in 2011 — satisfy Congress and make sure the CVC’s “treasured guests” enjoy their experience at the Capitol.

“We’re in such a unique situation where we’re making history every day,” she said, pausing in front of the full-size plaster model for the Dome’s Statue of Freedom. “We really want our visitor to know how Congress impacts them and their daily lives and see it as something that’s important for them to participate in and … go home and vote.”

Each year, up to 5,000 staffers and interns complete the CVC’s congressional tour training program. Logistics are incredibly important during peak spring and summer seasons, when upward of 10,000 people visit on a daily basis.

Under Rouse’s leadership, the CVC hired contractors to create and publish training manuals and conduct the training. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which represents guides, visitor assistants and gift shop workers, said the contractors arrived at the building never having seen the Capitol interior. Guides were tasked with two intensive days of “train the trainers,” the union told CQ Roll Call in a statement, showing them the “well choreographed dance” of a Capitol tour.

What started as a two-day, 16-hour course in lecture-only format has been streamlined into a four-hour program.

Plemmons said the CVC “polled the audience” to find out what congressional staff and interns were really looking for in terms of training. She showed off a 47-page “Congressional Staff-Led Capitol Tour Handbook” passed out after the training as a “safety net” of facts and figures that she says is one of the CVC’s most popular publications.

Tour guides face complex questions about the building’s history, legislative procedure and sometimes politically tricky inquiries.

In response to concerns about a lack of time for research, Plemmons said staff have been offered more opportunities for professional development. They are allowed to dive deeper into research projects, contributing to special tours and exhibits based on the War of 1812 and Congress’ role in the Civil War. This spring they planned extra activities to accommodate a Rotunda closure associated with the Capitol Dome restoration.

Working groups have been put in place to solve “a number of different issues that have bubbled up here,” Plemmons said, including scheduling.

“It’s a pretty intense workday,” she explained. “You are engaging thousands of visitors every day, moving them through and informing and inspiring them, and so it takes a lot of you to deliver that quality service that we want to deliver.” After close to two years, the team has developed a schedule that meets “many more of the needs than it did a couple of years ago,” Plemmons said.

The union has recently voiced concerns about guides’ access to water during the day, one of the issues that provoked early clashes between employees and management. Policy dictates that the guides need to “maintain an appropriate level of decorum for a customer service role.”

In a statement to CQ Roll Call related to tour training changes, the union alleged that CVC management has had a “tone-deaf relationship” with guides since 2008. ”Neither our education or our experience has been treated with respect,” they stated.

Plemmons said she is invested in improving the relationship, and has a deep desire for the team to be in good spirits.

“I want to say morale has improved,” she said. The CVC hears “compliments every day from our visitors about how impressed they are with the friendliness and knowledge our staff has to offer.”