It goes without saying that attractions – theme parks, museums, music venues, etc. – are designed to attract crowds. It’s right there in the name. So it’s no surprise that in a year when virus transmission fears made crowds inherently problematic, the attractions industry has been hit harder than most. Both the closure of existing attractions and the cancellation of many planned projects had significant impacts across the sector – not just for the venues, but for all the vendors that serve them as well. For many it’s been a year of furloughs and layoffs.

Locations that were able to re-open often had to drastically limit capacity, sometimes to 25% or lower, throwing business models into disarray. And though the arrival of vaccines now provides a clearer timeline for an end to the crisis, it will likely take a considerable period of time for most operators to get back their pre-pandemic attendance levels. Between now and then, one of the main priorities for attractions will be to make their guests feel safe and comfortable returning.

Reevaluating Safety Measures

Some of the practices that have been widely adopted will likely remain in place long after the threat has passed. Temperature checks at entry points and requiring face masks will continue well into 2021, but operators will be anxious to drop them as soon as that’s feasible in order to provide a better experience. But frequent sanitizing of surfaces by staff and the widespread presence of hand-washing stations may remain standard operating procedure well after case counts drop and Covid-19 recedes from the news. Branded face masks and hand sanitizers will likely remain gift shop staples, as a segment of the population will persist in their newfound transmission prevention precautions for years to come.

Maintenance of the CDC-recommended 6′ distancing between patrons will also likely be jettisoned quickly since it directly impacts capacity and hence an attraction’s bottom-line. Venue capacity logistics will be intensely focused on such metrics. Indoor locations will find new expertise in measuring and optimizing their ventilation systems, and stats like air exchange and carbon dioxide levels will have new importance. They might even find their way into marketing materials, as venues begin to compete on safety.

Different Strokes

Until now, attractions have been mostly following the guidelines provided for them by public health officials. Of course these guidelines vary from state to state (and vary even more widely internationally) presenting extra challenges for operators of geographically dispersed locations. But at least these offer some clear guidance. As restrictions are lifted, operators will be on their own to decide all these things, and we will probably see a return to the quality of experience being the lodestar.

Without a doubt, many of these measures are quite visible to guests. But that visibility cuts both ways – will venues want to demonstrate their commitment to keeping attendees safe? Or will they prefer to offer an escape, where visitors can forget about the notion of contagion for a few hours? No doubt different operators will come down on different sides of such choices at different times. And as discussed above, different measures lend themselves to each strategy differently. It will be interesting to see how attractions manage to implement various safety measures without ‘sanitizing’ the entire experience. While people will want to be safe, they definitely won’t want to sit in a thick cloud of disinfectant all day.

Virtual Queuing

Virtual ticketing and queuing technologies have become increasingly popular over the last few years. The largest attractions providers in the industry invested millions in developing proprietary systems, and a number of third-party vendors emerged to help smaller players to keep up. This will be yet another technology area where the pandemic accelerates existing trends. While the original driver for these technologies was to improve the visitor experience (because who likes to wait in line), they have clear benefits for reducing crowds and maximizing throughput while minimizing unnecessary interactions. As more and more venues introduce virtual queueing it will likely become an expectation as guests start to return to themed attractions over the next couple of years. Standing in long lines will become unthinkable, in the same way that calling and waiting for a taxi without being able to see its progress has become unthinkable since the introduction of rideshare apps.

Touchless Solutions

A large proportion of digital and interactive attractions (the kind that we create) rely on touch screens. While we believe that digital touch screens are low risk and likely to remain viable and useful, there may be a segment who are made uneasy by the idea of shared touch surfaces. There are many alternatives that can be implemented.

Many touch screens, especially very large ones, actually use an infrared bezel to track a finger position rather than actually sensing touch. By moving the bezel forward or the screen back, users can simply break the IR plane with their finger and not touch anything. This may require a change in the UX design on the screen since the bezel and screen will no longer align exactly and people of different heights or standing in slightly different locations will perceive the alignment differently.

Most touch screen controlled systems can also be retrofitted to allow control via visitors’ own smartphones. A QR code can be used to allow users to open a private page, available only within the venue, that contains the controls for the system. Wi-Fi geofencing can be used to ensure the security of such interfaces. This could be a useful solution for venues that want to offer a touchless option for a minority of their visitors who are extra cautious but retain a touch-based experience for most.

Alternatively, a digital experience could be built around a non-touch form of interaction such as voice control or gesture interface. Such interfaces are less intuitive than touch and more error-prone (and even touch fails occasionally) so we generally recommend against this route purely as an alternative to touch. But if the experience inherently lends itself to an alternative interaction model then it’s a great way to also get the benefits of touchless.

Eye tracking can also be used for a gaze-driven interface in lieu of touch. The more widespread adoption of virtual reality headsets in recent years has made this a relatively intuitive interface for gamers. But here again we recommend against this for pure touch replacement unless the experience and the audience are well suited to it.

Traceable Tech

One long-term effect we’d hope to see coming out of this pandemic is a greater awareness and understanding of airborne infections in general. In the US, many generations passed since our last firsthand experience of pandemic in 1918. It had largely dropped out of our collective social memory. But societies in Asia who had experienced SARS and other similar threats in recent memory responded very differently. If our next outbreak arrives in the next few years or decades, we may be able to handle it more adeptly, with more proactive testing and contact tracing.

The attractions industry might help facilitate this by using the data from tracking technologies that record the movement of guests throughout a venue. Smartphones provide much of this capability, as do long-range RFID tags, already in use at attractions and events. These technologies will continue to be implemented in order to offer better and more personalized visitor experiences and to improve guest flow, but the information collected might also be vital to controlling or stopping the next pandemic.

Featured Image: Glenn Haertlein on Unsplash