COVID-19: Searching for strategy in a washing machine

Before the crisis, we all had a plan. Whether or not the universe was unfolding as hoped, leadership teams were at least operating from a place of relative familiarity and certainty. For most visitor attractions, 2020 was a natural bookend to one strategic plan and the beginning of another. Suddenly, it’s all out the window. Gone are the strategy workshops, the budget drafts, the board reviews. What we knew, or at least what we thought we knew, has disappeared – and with it, the set of decisions about how we would move from where we are today into the future. COVID-19 has disrupted openings and builds, exhibitions and events, hiring and development. It has invalidated marketing campaigns, written off projects and called strategic priorities into question.

Governing by strategic plan has been replaced with management by business continuity, a feeling akin to flying the plane while building it. At first, we dealt with decisions day by day – to cancel an event, or close a venue. Now we’re going week to week, pushing back reopening plans and rescheduling exhibitions. But as time ticks on, it begs the question: is this the new normal? 

In the world as we knew it, plans, and strategic plans in particular, were the result of looking at what we could learn from history, from others and from the current situation. We could afford to invest time in identifying the answers to things we didn’t know with a goal of removing uncertainty and building confidence. We could engage teams, consult stakeholders and leave things to marinate. Plans of every type, from the strategic to the operational, were usually created with the benefit of time, availability of information, prior experience and confidence in the range of futures that we are planning for. In the face of COVID-19, nothing could be further from the truth.


The impact of COVID-19 to existing strategic plans

Around mid February many venues began to notice that something was off, particularly those in high tourism areas.  The numbers weren’t quite as expected. Most looked to their plans and forecasts to try to identify what was wrong, then to the news to see what hadn’t been taken into account. Meanwhile, China was battling a new virus and locking down the population in the country from which the world’s highest tourism spend originates – all $277 billion of it

Top 10 markets by visitor origin – a familiar list in COVID-19 spread

By the second week of March, any plans that were in place for the year of 2020 were in disarray and the financial implications of a downturn were starting to sink in for some. Visitation numbers dropped off a cliff as various regions became gripped by ever increasing case numbers with subsequent shelter in place orders. This was no longer a problem for visitors from China: COVID-19 had knocked on the front door.

Time, information, experience and knowledge of what the future holds are all absent in crisis. With a situation changing so quickly in the early stages, decisions must be made equally rapidly, with plans formed, abandoned and reformed as the situation evolves. In these stages we cycle quickly between assessment and response, many times over.  

For many venues, the immediate crisis was the pace with which the health emergency evolved and these immediate decisions related to the safety and welfare of staff and visitors.  That rapidly evolved into restrictions on gatherings impacting events and other activities, government directives to work from home where possible and ultimately, closures.  

As new information comes to light, as the range of potential futures becomes clearer, plans must change.  This crisis situation has already evolved from immediate business continuity planning to dealing with long term income loss – for most venues, the absence of a quarter, a soft ramp following and an uncertain timeframe to return to prior levels of demand. This long term view is no longer a case of wobbly wheels on an original strategic plan. This derailment of priorities represents a time to question everything we know, then start again. 


Planning for a long term new normal 

At this stage, the most likely of these consists of at least three months of closures for most venues, under a continuing health crisis for at least a year, perhaps two, with the long term economic price lasting into a third. This time horizon calls for more than a crisis management plan – to survive, then thrive – it requires a strategy.

As the immediate crisis of closing doors abates and the new normal begins to take shape, we start to feel the blessing of time.  We can breathe and consult, seeking out information and experience as we consider a new plan for the future. However, in contrast to planning in time of stability where we were focused on making the unknown known, when emerging into a new normal the gaps in information are often unknowable. Is a vaccine achievable? How long might it take to develop, test and rollout? Will it have an absolute effect? In the meantime, how long does immunity last? In the absence of eradication, how will society operate? 

In the face of so many known unknowns, instead of forecasting a likely future we must instead rely on simulating scenarios, beginning with understanding the macro environment. One of today’s variables is what end games governments are preparing for and what strategies they deploy in their pursuit. As new research models have been released such as that from the Imperial College London, or political pressures emerge, governments have pivoted to balance health and economic priorities. For multinational visitor attractions, or venues with international audiences, keeping up with these trajectories and tactics across the globe is a job in itself.

These government actions throw off macro economic factors which will shape the fabric of the future of society and industry conditions which will govern how visitor attractions operate. Everything must be questioned in the absence of a status quo, especially in a climate of unprecedented government control, internationally. In strategic planning, work such as PESTLE analysis helps paint the picture of the new normal in terms of political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors – potentially demographic, intercultural, ethical and more. The state of travel and tourism will make or break many.

For most visitor attractions, especially those going into the crisis from a delicate footing, this goal will simply be one of survival to the other side. For some with more reserves in the tank, particularly for commercial venues, the new strategic plan may involve a more aggressive stance – in any downturn, there is market consolidation, bringing with it opportunities for winners. 


From disorder through chaos to complexity 

The Cynefin framework provides a decision framework with which to navigate from disorder by providing contextual domains from which decision makers can act: chaos, complex, complicated and obvious – centered around disorder. Each domain is a ‘sense of place’ from which to analyze behavior and make decisions. 

Sketch of the Cynefin framework, by Edwin Stoop

In chaos, action rules. In the complex, experiments help understand how the market is adapting and the visitor attraction business model responds. In the complicated, a strategy can emerge. It is with this domain in sight that visitor attractions need to quickly find their feet and walk towards. 

The situation the visitor attraction sector finds itself in assumes this is not a known path, that future disorder may plague us as knock on effects mature and that macro economic factors are subject to intense change. In this environment, governance and leadership styles need to move beyond adaptable to purely agile, embracing unfamiliarity. Such extreme conditions requires a way to measure and monitor whether experiments should pivot or persevere and whether actions have moved the organization closer to goal.  Data informed decisions are more important than ever. 

In this new washing machine of a world, financial imperatives, technological workarounds and operational innovation are all new strategic priorities for most visitor attractions. These will eventually allow us to reopen the doors when the time comes, keep audiences engaged and staff enabled in the meantime, then prepare for a very delicate reopening. These are more than just crisis response – they represent the evolution of business continuity into a strategic plan. 

Welcome to the new normal.