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Will your entertainment or cultural venue be ready for the post-lockdown guests?

The consumer for out-of-home entertainment, cultural and other leisure experiences that emerges after the lockdown will be different than the consumer we knew just two months ago. A heightened concern for safety from disease is one of the many ways their behaviors and expectations will have changed. 

The effects of epidemics extend long term after they are over. Diseases permanently alter society by creating new and better practices and habits. Many healthy behaviors we consider normal today are the result of past health campaigns that responded to devastating disease outbreaks. There can be little question that the coronavirus pandemic will be no different. It will permanently change our behaviors when it comes to staying disease-free as well as our expectations for and our choices of which businesses we feel will be safe to visit. A recent Gallup poll found there as a strong correlation of Americans’ readiness to return to normal and “their fear that they themselves would be of risk of severe Covid-19 symptoms.”

It is becoming clear that humanity won’t get rid of COVID-19 as it did with SARS in 2003. We will be living with the threat of this virus for many years. Fear of catching coronavirus, even when its almost non-existent, won’t be fast forgotten. Many people will have developed nosophobia. Habits developed during the lockdown will persist for a large segment of the population well into the post-pandemic era no different than people who experienced the Great Depression fastidiously counted pennies throughout their lives. The COVID-19 generation may never abandon many of the hygiene habits and expectations for businesses they developed during the lockdown. 

Exactly how long those expectations last will depend on how long we are advised to practice constant handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks. Some of those social behaviors, especially handwashing and social distancing, might last beyond a vaccine’s deployment, as they will have become habits, the norm, rather than just temporary measures. We could well have developed a permanent heightened fear of the threat of all germs and viruses and therefore developed higher standards of hygiene.In last week’s Dataessential’s weekly coronavirus webinar (recommended, every Friday 2pm CDT, register here), they presented current consumer research on what people expect to continue to do when social distancing is ended.

Their research found that as of April 7th, 95% of Americans were concerned and worried about their own personal health. 

It is clear that the majority of people will continue to fear coronavirus and will maintain many of their hygienic behaviors even when the government tells us social distancing is no longer required. 

So, will your location-based entertainment or cultural business, whether it is a family entertainment center (FEC), other type of location-based entertainment (LBE), eatertainment facility, theme park, zoo, museum, agritourism farm or other leisure destination, have standards and practices in place so people will feel it’s a safe place to visit where they won’t catch the invisible enemy? 

This will vary based on the type of venue. Bill Gates tells us the only thing that will make people feel good about attending mass gatherings with lots of people, such as at large festivals, concerts or sports stadiums, is to develop a vaccine with widespread deployment. He says it might not be until the fall of 2021 that this can happen and people will feel completely safe. A recent poll by Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (72%) said they wouldn’t attend a sporting event without the vaccine.

People may first feel more comfortable returning to smaller venues that will be less crowded and outdoor ones that may feel safer than indoor ones. But people are sure to consider any business more threatening to their health than they did pre-corona. They are going to have heightened awareness of the environment and expectations for their safety from viruses and germs and the way the business is operated. The future success of any location-based business will depend on how well it adapts to the new normal of the post-corona consumers’ expectations.

Infectious-disease specialists tell us there are two basic ways to contract coronavirus – coming in contract with virus droplets in the air or from touching surfaces the droplets are on or that infected people have touched and then touching your fingers to your face. Social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding places where there is a high probability people are infected is the way we avoid catching the virus by airborne droplets. Constantly disinfecting communal surfaces, trying to not touch our faces (easier said than done) and constant handwashing or using hand sanitizer is the way we try to avoid catching the virus from things we touch. 

Here are some of my current thoughts on post- lockdown best practices based on our current knowledge of coronavirus transmission (which is still rapidly unfolding based on worldwide scientific research) to not only protect staff and guests, but also to project a reassuring image that the facility is safe to visit. 

Facility design – Minimizing facility communal surfaces that people touch and having aggressive disinfecting practices for the ones they do touch will be important.

Doors – Door handles/knobs are a constant threat. Automatically opening doors are the solution. Restroom entrances should be doorless like you see in an airport. Our company has been designing doorless restroom entries in all our clients’ projects for decades.

Restrooms – Make them touchless. This includes the faucets, soap dispensers, urinals and toilets. Do not use paperless hand air dryers but rather automatic paper towel dispensers. Research studies have shown that air dryers actually spread germs and viruses. One study found that a jet air dryer dispersed 20 times more virus than the warm air dryer and over 190 times more than paper towels. Another study reported that jet air dryers spread 1,300 times more pathogens than a paper towel, hot air dryers are 60 times more infectious than a paper towel, and pathogens “could be dispersed throughout buildings and deposited on hands by hand dryers.” With more people washing their hands more frequently, restrooms will need much higher capacities for both soap and paper towel dispensers so they won’t run out.

Handwashing stations – Restrooms are not the most appealing places to go if you just want to wash your hands. When I first started visiting the Gulf region of the Middle East before the influence of Western design, traditional restaurants there had handwashing stations immediately inside the entrance that you used before sitting at a table. This was probably due to the fact that Arabs ate with their hands, often from shared dishes. Last year I found a hand washing station outside of the restrooms at the new food court pavilion in Woodfield Mall in the Chicago metro. That’s a much more appealing and convenient approach for offering hand washing to customers than having them have to go into a restroom, especially now in these days of frequent handwashing. It is also a better option for staff. The more customers see staff washing their hands, the safer they’ll feel. For facilities that offer food and beverage table service, it makes sense to also have a hand washing sink at locations where staff constantly frequent, such as the kitchen expo station or where they source smallwares to put on tables.  

Disinfecting the whole facility – To make people feel safe might require treating the entire facility with a disinfecting fog every night like Delta Airlines will soon be doing after every flight. 

Person-to-person transmission – This can come from both guests and staff. Maybe by the time out-of-home leisure venues open, the government will be issuing immunity passports for people who have recovered from the COVID-19. Will we need to have a door person to check for those, and if not, then to check for people’s temperatures, although that does not detect early asymptomatic coronavirus? Perhaps we will need to require all guests and staff to wear masks. If guests don’t come with one, maybe offer them for sale. Just like grocery and other stores, shields may need to be placed in front of all POS or other type transaction stations to further protect staff. 

Social distancing – The ability to maintain social distancing is impacted by the density of people in a venue. The more square feet there is per person, the easier it is to social distance. If social distancing is still required, this will require restricting the capacity of venues, especially indoor ones. In turn, this will restrict overall attendance, especially when the vast majority of attendance at most venues occurs at peak times on Friday evenings, weekends and holidays. To maintain overall viable attendance numbers, venues may need to find ways to convince more people to come at non-peak times. Social distancing will be especially challenging for wait service food and beverage, as it is next to impossible for staff to serve food and drinks at a bar or table while six feet away from guests. Having queue lines that maintain adequate social distancing will also be challenging if not impractical. A timed reservation system that texts guests when it is their turn or similar technology can eliminate the need for queue lines.  

Communal equipment –The parts of entertainment and play equipment that guest touch will need to be disinfected after use. This includes such things as the controls and buttons on games, steering wheels on go-karts, helmets for high speed go-karts, hold bars on rides, VR masks, laser tag equipment, golf clubs, etc. This can become very challenging for things like ten-pin bowling balls with their finger holes. Perhaps there will need to be hand-washing or sanitizer stations at lanes and exit points for go-karts and other rides. Things like ropes courses and trampolines may prove impossible or impractical to disinfect after every use and might not be opened until there is wide vaccination.  

Air movement – Research shows that blowing air will move virus infected droplets more than six feet. HVAC air circulation will need to be checked to stop any significant air flows where people will be. Overhead fans may need to be inactivated. Outdoor dining patios may not be considered safe since a breeze can spread droplets further, especially since people won’t be wearing masks while dining and drinking. 

Touchscreens & keyboards – Many entertainment facilities use touch screens or keyboards for sign-in, filling out waivers, etc. Wherever possible, they should be eliminated. Otherwise, they will need to be disinfected after ever use. If paper forms are substituted, the pen will need to be disinfected after every use. The same goes for signing on a screen for a credit card purchase, which credit card companies no longer require. When leisure venues can reopen, it will be important to meet what will have become the expectations of college-degreed consumers. Research is showing that they are the most concerned about and fearful of catching coronavirus. Prior to the lockdown, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of all out-of-home entertainment and arts admissions and fees (73%). They are definitely the target market that venues will want to appeal to when they reopen. 

About Randy White

Randy White is CEO and co-founder of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group. The 31-year-old company, with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, has worked for over 600 clients in 37 countries throughout the world. Projects the company has designed and produced have won seventeen 1st place awards. Randy is considered to be one of the world's foremost authorities on feasibility, brand development, design and production of leisure experience destinations including entertainment, eatertainment, edutainment, agritainment/agritourism, play and leisure facilities.

Randy was featured on the Food Network's Unwrapped television show as an eatertainment expert, quoted as an entertainment/edutainment center expert in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times and Time magazine and received recognition for family-friendly designs by Pizza Today magazine. One of the company's projects was featured as an example of an edutainment project in the book The Experience Economy. Numerous national newspapers have interviewed him as an expert on shopping center and mall entertainment and retail-tainment.

Randy is a graduate of New York University. Prior to repositioning the company in 1989 to work exclusively in the leisure and learning industry, White Hutchinson was active in the retail/commercial real estate industry as a real estate consultancy specializing in workouts/turnarounds of commercial projects. In the late 1960s to early 1980s, Randy managed a diversified real estate development company that developed, owned and managed over 2.0 million square feet of shopping centers and mixed-use projects and 2,000 acres of residential subdivisions. Randy has held the designations of CSM (Certified Shopping Center Manager) and Certified Retail Property Executive (CRX) from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

He has authored over 150 articles that have been published in over 40 leading entertainment/leisure and early childhood education industry magazines and journals and has been a featured speaker and keynoter at over 40 different conventions and trade groups.

Randy is the editor of his company's Leisure eNewsletter, has a blog and posts on Twitter and Linkedin.

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