2022: The ThemedReality Report on COVID-19’s Impact on the Attractions Industry Part I: MEET

On the afternoon of August 24, 2020, I proposed to my now fiancé on a secluded beach along the rocky Northern California shore. Although I was successful, this was far from my original plans, which were altered at the last minute due to a natural disaster and a public health crisis.

Gone were the plans to propose at Diagon Alley. We were uncomfortable with flying to Florida at this point. A plan to propose on a cruise to Mexico was voided when the US cruise industry came to a standstill. And a proposal at Universal Studios Hollywood or Disneyland were also off the table – it was obvious they wouldn’t be open in time.

The final strategy involved a weekend getaway for her birthday at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay, about a half hour drive south of San Francisco. The proposal would have taken place on the cliffs behind the hotel, overlooking the ocean.

Two days before our trip, the San Mateo County Sheriff began evacuating the small town of Pescadero, only twenty minutes south of the Ritz Carlton, due to an approaching wildfire. We canceled our reservation and, at the the last minute, rescheduled our trip to Fort Bragg, two hundred miles to the north of Half Moon Bay.

During the summer, Fort Bragg’s economy is highly dependent on tourism. As such, and to protect its resident population, the town took strict precautions to prevent introduction of the coronavirus into the community. Dr. William Miller, the Chief of Staff at Mendocino Coast District Hospital wrote that it wasn’t until the first week of June that “Fort Bragg had its first local resident to be diagnosed with COVID-19. This person had traveled outside the community and became ill shortly after returning home.”

During our visit, unlike in our hometown, the safeguards were evident everywhere. Everyone wore face masks and all were conscientious about social distancing. Our hotel, the charming Beach House Inn, abided diligently to guidance established by the CDC, the state and county, and the California Hotel & Lodging Association. Everything in the room was sterilized prior to our arrival and no hotel staff, including housekeeping, entered the room once we had checked in. Continental breakfasts were discontinued, which was fine for us as grocery stores and coffee houses were a five minute drive away.

Fort Bragg is the second largest city in Mendocino County and the county’s largest tourist destination. More than 7,000 are employed in the county’s tourism industry, which brings in close to $500 million per year. Though the peak tourism season lasts through Labor Day weekend, it was obvious that this year it had ended months earlier. The town’s biggest tourism attraction – the Skunk Train – was operating on a limited schedule with capped attendance. To fill the gap, the scenic railroad operator began offering a new eco-tourism option – railbikes.

During our stay, two weeks before the Labor Day holiday, the hotels were packed. They weren’t packed with tourists, but rather those escaping the flames and smoke of huge wildfires that had erupted in Marin, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz Counties to the South and Lake County to the East. We decided during our stay to eat locally, but it became obvious that, even though local lodging was filled, the damage to the dining industry from state COVID guidance was already having a heavy negative impact.

A state mandate prohibiting indoor dining meant that if we wanted to eat at a restaurant, it would have to be outdoors or we’d have to pickup the food and eat it at our hotel or at a park. Most restaurants that would normally operate throughout the week had reduced the operating schedule to Thursday through Sunday. Because of the ban on indoor dining, restaurants had scrambled for available outdoor space, and in that space, tables had to be separated six feet from each other. As one manager told me, “I’m lucky we’re open and I can keep my current staff working. Even with our outdoor seating, we’re only about a quarter of our usual capacity. With payroll protection ending, I’m going to have to lay off just over half my staff.”

This is the story of one small town.

CONVENTIONS AND TRADE SHOWS

Imagine a much larger tourism city like Orlando, Anaheim, or Las Vegas – cities with limited interstate and international tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, where attractions are either opened with limited operations or closed completetly.

Now imagine that a major part of that city’s tourism comes from the convention business. The local economic impact from conventions at the Anaheim Convention Center was close to $2 billion last year. The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando has an annual impact on the local economy of $3 billion. Economic impact from the Las Vegas Convention Center is estimated at more than $2 bllion per year. When it comes to the entire Las Vegas area, where almost all casino resorts have their own convention facilities, the total economic impact from all convention venues is closer to $10.5 billion.

When large conventions cancel, a domino effect takes place. Hotel rooms aren’t filled, restaurants aren’t patronized, hourly employment is reduced, and residents dependent on convention business have less to spend within the local community.

Throughout the attractions sector, conventions and conferences started cancelling beginning in March 2020. Among them, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), World Waterpark Association (WWA). Comic-Con San Diego, and the country’s largest AV trade shows and conferences – including Infocomm and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Some show cancellations were due to the inability to cater to international or interstate attendees as a result of transportation logistics or quarantine requirements. Many convention organizers also took into consideration a stipulation that most insurance companies added to convention policies during the SARS outbreak of 2003 – an exemption of coverage for anything related to communicable disease.

As compared to commercially operated conventions open to the public, nonprofit trade associations running their own shows have a primary responsibility to their membership – which for many includes not placing their members in risky situations.

One of the final standouts for cancellation was the IAAPA Expo, scheduled to take place in November 2020. Even as IAAPA cancelled its international Expos in Macau and London, it continued with plans to hold its primary show in Orlando. Unsubstantiated rumors state that in order to prevent its largest tenant from cancelling, which might send the wrong signal to other bookers, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) was offering substantial discounts to IAAPA, one rumor going so far as to state that OCCC was willing to comp the entire show.

Then pressure started coming from within the membership. On August 6, four attractions industry vendors – Chance Rides, Great Coasters International, Larson International, and Premier Rides, published a well circulated joint open letter to their customers explaining that they had all backed out of participation and attendance at the 2020 IAAPA Expo.

Two days prior, Ancasvi and VDV e.V., trade organizations representing ride and attraction manufacturers in Italy and Germany, published a lesser known open letter to IAAPA management requesting the event be postponed to early 2021, in light of the then public health situation in Florida. Among the ninety members represented by the letter were major IAAPA exhibitors, including Zamperla, Gerstlauer, Huss, Wiegand, Mack Rides, and Maurer.

VIRTUAL CONFERENCES

Most canceled conferences, conventions, and trade shows ended up being adapted into virtual events. Of the six that I’ve attended so far, each has had its own hosting platform and approach. While successful during a global pandemic, this practice is likely a one-off. Moving forward, we’re more likely to see hybrid events, with emphasis on in-person attendance and virtual casting of some, but not all, sessions for those not able to attend.

During the keynote presentation of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) virtual 2020 conference, keynoter Bob Cooney briefly interviewed Brent Bushnell, CEO and co-founder of interactive LBE Two Bit Circus. With their downtown Los Angeles location closed, Two Bit began broadcasting its live interactive game shows on the internet. Bushnell discovered something very important – “Elements of the live experience cannot be replicated on a video call.”

The same goes for any live event. I prefer to make personal eye contact with luminaries such as Lonnie Bunch III or Tom Mehrmann at a presentation, rather than watch their eyes skirt across a computer screen. I don’t want to chat via text. I want to have a face to face, where multiple inputs allow us to more robustly react off of each other.

As humans, we are sensorial creatures. An online event limits us to just two senses – vision and hearing. In a live situation, we are all impacted equally by the conditions of our shared room – temperature, air conditioning, decor. When we speak one-on-one, our conversations are impacted by body language – not just the part of the body we see within the computer or phone screen, but the entire body. We are impacted if someone physically touches us, and if we touch them. Our response changes if their breath smells of mint, or if it smells of something far worse.

AUTOMATION

A side effect of COVID-19 is the acceleration of automated and app-based solutions for a number of needs. In the attractions industry, this includes digital ticketing, virtual queueing, and cashless ordering. But, again, we are sensorial creatures. So it’s near impossible to have customer-service oriented automation without humans present in a supplemental role.

Back at the Beach House Inn in Fort Bragg, I took the dog out shortly after midnight to do his dog business. When we returned to our building, I realized that I had left my keycard inside the room, and I needed that card to enter the building. I couldn’t call up to my fiancé in the room since I had also left my phone. The office to our hotel was closed, but fortunately I had the car keys with me. So I put the dog in the car and we drove half a mile down the shore to our hotel’s sister property. After verifying I was indeed a guest, the desk clerk followed me back to our hotel and personally let me into our building.

I would have been frustrated beyond compare if I had had to use an automated system to get back into my room, especially if that system were not working properly.

In April 2019, we flew on a whim to Las Vegas. We entered the long check-in line for Mandalay Bay, the hotel we were booked at. The line was moving at a decent pace.

Then it stopped.

And it did not move for forty minutes.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a bank of automated check-in terminals. Fortunately, there were humans present to help people through the process – humans who, at that moment, told me that the key system had crashed.

So we checked in our luggage at the bell counter and went off to the casino. We found that most of the slot machines were down. As a representative at the rewards counter told us, the slots were all integrated, just like the key system, with parent company MGM Resorts’ membership program and the program’s software had crashed.

About five hours later, we were checked into our suite and we received a call from the bell captain. The wheels had fallen off of our suitcase. He apologized (even though it was just likely wear and tear) and offered us either a new suitcase or a $250 dining credit. It made a world of difference to go from a system breakdown by a computer server that had no interpersonal skills to receiving an apology and an offer from a live human. That night, we had steak and lobster.

We are sensorial creatures and no matter how much the automation industry argues that programs are adapting to human behavior, the reality is that we, as humans, are having to adapt our behavior to the technology. For many of us, that’s difficult. It’s why there’s a live person overseeing the automated checkout at our local grocery, why McDonald’s maintains manned counters even though a majority of locations have adopted touch screen and app ordering, it’s why on my visit to Six Flags, I went through three checkpoints before entering the park, each manned by one to two people. We need people to guide us through the technology. When the technology doesn’t work, we need people to troubleshoot. We need people to make sure nobody’s using the technology to cheat the system. We need people for human comfort.

Disney knew this in 1982, when restaurant reservations at Epcot’s WorldKey Information kiosks were handled by live customer service representatives over closed circuit video feed, rather than by the pressing of touch screen buttons.

NEXT TIME

But now in California, Disney doesn’t know when it can take reservations as it fights the state for the right to reopen its parks. It’s the great political game pitting the economy against public health, next time in Part II of “2022: The ThemedReality Report on COVID-19’s Impact on the Attractions Industry”

DISCLAIMER: This report centers around activities primarily in the United States. Conditions will vary in other nations due to differences in cultural behavior, government regulations, and government ownership of private and public entities. Additional disclaimers can be found by clicking on the menu tab in the top right of this page.

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