– By Jedd Pellerin, Project Architect
My wife, kids, and colleagues will tell you that I (probably too often) extoll the benefits of early-bird dinners, never grocery shopping on the weekend, Sunday morning matinees, TSA Pre-check, and off-peak visits to resorts and attractions. I’ve always been a bit of a social distancer, somewhat driven by choice, and furthered by having been diagnosed with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis as a teenager.
The thought of spending an hour crammed onto a bench with 20 strangers waiting for a table at a restaurant gives me real anxiety. I’m sure a lot more of us are feeling the same way these days. Having had to navigate social distancing for the sake of my health for the past twenty-something years, and as an architect that designs museums, aquariums, and other themed attractions, I thought I’d share some thoughts and strategies that may apply across our industry as we begin to welcome back guests.
Avoiding Crowds, Not Avoiding People
While I do enjoy time alone, I’m not a recluse. I love spending time with friends and family, and meeting new people. I simply choose to do it in a smaller group whenever possible. As people begin to make their way back out into public after the COVID-19 restrictions are rolled back, it would make sense that they too will initially do so in the same “pods” with which they’ve been spending their shelter-in-place time. Adapting operations in public spaces to allow these individuals and smaller groups to feel they have their own space, making sure facilities are clean, and minimizing “points of contact” will be key to setting guests’ minds at ease during this transition. Here are some ideas on how we can achieve these goals.
- Reduced occupancy with expanded hours can offer a way to spread out guest visits while helping to keep attendance numbers up. It can also offer opportunities for more targeted guest experiences. Seniors and immunocompromised guests might get a few hours to themselves first thing in the morning. Younger guests might appreciate night-time programming geared toward their interests. Certain hours might be only for school groups with more educational opportunities presented at those times.
- Timed ticketing is not new to our industry, but it could be the new norm. Avoiding lengthy and/or close-proximity queuing will be a must.
- Developing strategies to keep guests moving in a linear fashion while maintaining a buffer between them and others will be a challenge, but also an opportunity to re-think guest experiences. It shouldn’t be just about “roping off” pathways. Integrating hands-free, motion-sensing interactive technology to act as a guide is one strategy. Another might be developing more theatrical, arms-length engagement by staff (think of the flight attendants on Southwest Airlines).
- Where guest flow might be more restricted/regulated, the need for points of exit is an important consideration. A small child that needs to use the restroom, or anyone that might be feeling distressed, will need a way to safely exit the guest path without causing disruption.
Minimizing Points of Contact
- We might finally see the end of paper ticketing. I don’ think anyone would be disappointed in that development.
- Public wariness of facial recognition and other artificial intelligence-based software may ease and allow for greater acceptance of contact-less check-in/check-out, retail, and dining experiences.
- New layouts for unavoidable common areas like restrooms will need to be considered. At a minimum, installing hands-free faucets, flush valves, and soap and hand dryers should be considered ahead of guests returning.
- The need for new wayfinding signage, guides, and physical barriers will offer new design opportunities. Guests are going to be looking for more guidance in general upon first returning to public venues. This is a time for Experiential Graphic Designers to shine!
- Ramping up online engagement of guests and potential guests is already in place across our industry. Continuing to develop new and engaging interactive content that can be used on personal smartphones and tablets both during and after visits, versus hands-on/up-close interactives (like wall-mounted touchscreens), can help to make more individualized and varied experiences, and limit unnecessary points of contact.
Cleaning and Maintenance
- Evaluating HVAC systems to potentially increase the number of air changes and add better filtration are low-cost ways to help with indoor air quality.
- Replacing old surfaces, hardware, and fixtures with anti-microbial materials will offer not only better resistance to the spread of pollutants, but also a refreshed aesthetic.
- Similarly, developing more stringent cleaning and maintenance procedures not only helps fight the spread of viruses and bacteria, but guests also take notice of cleanliness (or the lack thereof).
Bringing the Experience Outside the Building
- With reduced occupancy inside buildings, there will be opportunities for pop-up type exhibits, performances, and retail outside. Developing programming for exterior plazas, green spaces, and even parking lots could turn previously under-utilized areas into assets. From the guest side, it can help to make any wait times feel less like “just standing around.”
- Outdoor spaces can also offer areas for guests to rest without causing a bottleneck to the more controlled flow of interior spaces.
While there is plenty of uncertainty around what form the return from COVID-19 will take, using the time we have now to consider and plan for the future of our industry will be time well-spent. Employing some of the strategies that immunocompromised individuals have already been utilizing for the sake of their personal health could prove to be a key to making a successful transition back from sheltering in place.
Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease affecting about 1.5 million people in the US and five million worldwide. It can make people more susceptible to illnesses such as COVID-19. For more information click here.