COVID-19: How visitor attractions are supporting communities in crisis

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Locked up for weeks on end, Italy’s residents turned to culture to support each other in getting through. Singers, violinists, poets and more ignited a #StayAtHome peer cultural experience as other nations followed suit with their own lockdowns. Following concert cancellations, Coldplay’s Chris Martin launched a virtual series and for many, the isolation has proven a fuel for creativity, such as those rewriting popular songs with virus lyrics. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, the act of engaging in culture from the intimacy of our homes boosts morale and helps us all remember we’re in this together as a global human experience. 

Having closed their doors, the world’s cultural institutions and commercial attractions are now adding their force to the online effort while finding new ways to support their communities with live feeds, virtual tours, online collections, community competitions and more. 

Despite closing to the public, in Chicago, Shedd Aquarium has kept its visitor counts up with a burgeoning new demographic: penguins. Early adopter Wellington spread the word, joined by friends to wander around the aquarium’s exhibits. Whilst it’s not clear if the penguin found the experience an educational one or more likely thought he was shopping for dinner, he was certainly engaged throughout his tour. Over in Australia, the zoo keepers are attracting more attention than the animals. Melbourne Zoo’s recently launched live cam feed was supposed to bring visitors stuck at home closer to the animal kingdom, but instead went viral after a keeper put on an impressive dance show to entertain those in isolation.    

Using the hashtag #MuseumFromHome, hundreds of museums from around the world have been educating and engaging visitors using virtual tours, 360 degree views, live streams and more, enabling those stuck at home to enjoy the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Uffizi in Florence or Musée d’Orsay in Paris from the comfort of couch confinement. Social media managers have been kept busy engaging audiences. Which is just as well, it seems. “Day 3. Museum is closed and we. are. Bored.” says MoMA, pointing those with a craving for art they can touch to Yoko Ono’s unique tips for realizing art. The Design Museum in London seized the moment by partnering to launch a design competition to propose new forms of hand sanitiser pumps, embellish existing ones or creatively interpret the practice. Shortlisted entries will be exhibited in the museum and auctioned to raise money for The British Red Cross.

Born digital interactives are going virtual too. The Tower of David in Jerusalem was set to launch an immersive onsite experience powered by virtual and augmented reality. Thanks to some quick thinking, visitors from around the world will be able to enjoy The Holy City from home instead with an online edition. The opera community isn’t missing out either, despite the Metropolitan Opera cancelling performances due to the pandemic. Instead, fans can tune in online to watch encores, starting with Bizet’s Carmen, starring Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna. 

Entertaining kids home from school, Canada’s Wonderland is offering virtual roller coaster rides. Armed with a laundry hamper as a makeshift trolley car, one dad made the in lounge experience even more real for his young daughter in front of the screen at home. For the work from home market, artistic location based experience Meow Wolfe in Sante Fe launched a series of colorful and creative backgrounds from venue photos for video conference attendees to use with Zoom’s green screen background feature. 

Attractions have been able to help in other ways too. In the face of closures, The Walt Disney Company donated food from sites in Florida and California to local food banks, with staff helping distribution efforts. LEGOLAND sent their supplies to local hospitals, keeping front line heroes well stocked in sugary treats. Donation efforts such as at the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk include precious resources in demand by the medical community such as gloves, masks, plastic aprons, hats and shoe covers. Cultural institutions such as museums use these collection handling while food and beverage outlets at closed venues are also sitting on unused stock needed in the fight against COVID-19.

Sadly, many attractions are faced with significant losses that impact jobs and supporting communities also means supporting their own families too. For the 12,000 park employees at Urban Air Adventure Parks in addition to other family entertainment centers, Amazon leadership has provided a temporary leadership using a temporary placement program for impacted staff across the United States, getting workers into paid employment as quickly as 7 days from application.

The theme across the industry, whether entertaining visitors, supporting staff or strengthening their own families is simply, being human. For visitor attractions, this builds brand loyalty, creates pent up demand, generates value for members and potentially can be converted into revenue streams in the form of donations, advance offers or other monetization. Alongside health, economy and education concerns, culture is an important part of the fabric of society to help ride out the enormous impacts of COVID-19 and the digital age is an important tool to deliver its calming effect to soothe frayed nerves and provide welcome relief from brutal headlines.