Rather than ‘pivoting’ away from their usual roles, visitor experience teams have been working incredibly hard deploying the skills and training they have always held in their professional arsenal
Since March I have lost track of the number of friends, colleagues and clients that have asked me how other organisations across the sector are ‘pivoting’ their approaches to visitor experience in the face of Covid-19. I asked the question myself as I tried to get to grips with how galleries, museums and the hugely diverse range of visitor attractions in the UK and beyond were responding to the impacts of the crisis.
As the weeks and months passed and attractions and venues in different sectors and regions were legally able to reopen, examples began to emerge of organisations adapting elements of their operations, commercial activity and community and digital engagement.
The fact that a huge majority of attractions and cultural venues in the UK that are legally permitted to be open demonstrates the determination, professionalism and flexibility that drives visitor-facing organisations to provide physical access and engagement with the public. It is also a testament to how passionately visitor experience teams have upheld their two principle roles: ensuring the safety and wellbeing of visitors and encouraging the deepest levels of engagement possible for all audiences.
Never have visitors needed this more than during the pandemic. The ability to leave home and visit a museum or gallery, a castle or a country park, has for millions of friends, families and individuals been a much needed and incredibly valuable way to balance their wellbeing and take their mind off their troubles for a moment or a day.
The Covid-19 crisis developed extraordinarily quickly, and the impacts were totally unexpected by most organisations. However, the unexpected is what Visitor Experience teams are trained and prepared for. They spend a huge amount of time and resource in scenario planning and preparation – from the day to day challenges of the large school group who haven’t booked their visit, ensuring a vulnerable visitor is supported during an emergency evacuation or helping a visitor engage with a challenging issue presented in an exhibition. One colleague described their team as having “been waiting in the wings and are ready for any eventuality”.
The key reason that many people took their first outing post lockdown to a museum, gallery or visitor attraction was because that’s where they felt safe
So, rather than ‘pivoting’ away from their usual roles, visitor experience teams have been working incredibly hard deploying the skills and training they have always held in their professional arsenal.
Of course, many new skills have been developed too: how to create unintimidating but effective signage or how to enforce strict rules and procedures without even being able to do so with a smile, as we are all masked.
The key reason that many people took their first outing post lockdown to a museum, gallery or visitor attraction was because that’s where they felt safe, they knew a team would be on hand that would be sensitive to their individual needs. A team able to create tailored experiences for each and every one of their guests, carefully assessing visitors’ individual needs and catering to them.
Seven months in, I do hear from colleagues who are struggling. The energy required to accommodate the constantly evolving operational requirements, to support their teams, to remain imaginative and to operate within incredible financial restraints is draining. For those who were, or still are, furloughed it can be equally as tough. Having spent a career preparing and waiting in the wings it’s incredibly hard to be told to stand down and simply wait. Across the sector and particularly in the Visitor Experience realm we’ve been there to support each other; sharing resources, advice, ideas, offering a shoulder to cry on or someone to have a cup of tea with. We’ve called each other and looked out for each other, gathered around our screens to share whatever resources we can. For those not previously in a network or who didn’t feel connected to others in the same boat, they’ve been welcomed into networks such as the Visitor Experience Forum.
Whilst visitor numbers will remain low for the time being, and vital overseas tourists and education groups are still not allowed to return, I think it’s important to remember that physical encounters in cultural spaces, often up close with artefacts, art and people remain a compelling proposition and an important part of the fabric of peoples’ lives. Many Visitor Experience teams are using this period to spend more time with individual visitors, giving them the additional care and attention they need, creating meaningful experiences for them and in turn creating ambassadors who will fly the flag for our institutions for years to come.