Museum Marketing: Remapping Visitor Experiences Post-COVID-19May 18, 2020
Museums are cornerstones of travel, and won’t likely fade away anytime soon. Still, COVID-19 has created a new challenge to how visitors interact with these cultural institutions. As the American Museum of Natural History begins laying off staff, it’s easy to become hopeless.
In the days following the lockdowns, however, museums proved proactive, from virtual learning at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown to virtual tours at Mint Museum Uptown. Museums met visitors where they are, at home, but they won’t stay there forever.
As travel picks up again and visitors find themselves in destinations, they won’t be looking for online experiences with dinosaur bones and tapestries. They’ll be looking for the real thing, or else nothing at all.
Museums will apply the expected rules and regulations. We’ll see hand sanitizers more and more at most institution. There may even be health or temperature checks for larger museums. We’ll all be gawking at paintings and sculptures as we wear masks, and the chances of sharing handheld tour devices or headsets can be forgotten for a while.
Instead, how can museums think about serving customers more effectively? It might seem like a daunting task, but a mix of embracing what some overcrowded museums have already established plus looking to behaviors familiar at the grocery store, and museums will find a winning combination of success in the coming months.
Museums get busy. Lines at the Louvre stretch endlessly while the Forbidden City in Beijing is a nightmare to navigate solo. How can museums mitigate crowds? Many have already implemented timed visits long before COVID-19. The Borghese in Rome, for example, welcomes visitors for a limited amount of time, then clears everybody out for the next wave of visitors.
Going forward, this may become standard. Additionally, perhaps museums who don’t need such stringent visitation schedules may still do like the grocery stores do and have hours for the more vulnerable. The elderly, for example, might have first dibs at visiting from 9AM-12PM while younger museum goers can come later in the day.
It’s an easy fix to incorporate since most people are doing it already while food shopping. We need to make concessions to avoid a new wave of the virus, and this is an easy way to be inclusive and safe.
A lot of museums have automated ticket booths, so a cleaning staff will need to be on hand if they will continue operation. Otherwise, it’s time to move more fully to online tickets so visitors can simply scan their smartphones. Paper tickets aren’t very sustainable, anyway.
If that’s out of the question, plexiglass shields at ticket booths, like those put up at grocery stores, will at least create a barrier to make both parties feel safe. Remember, it’s all about keeping COVID-19 away until we can be more certain that it won’t surge again – or better yet, until we have a vaccine.
During the visit
Once visitors are inside a gallery, it becomes more difficult to police the experience. It’s almost impossible to imagine an empty floor in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” It’s one the MoMa’s most famous pieces of art, attracting people from far and wide who travel to New York to catch a glimpse. Now, however, it seems like another ground zero for an outbreak. How will we possibly distance ourselves appropriately in these galleries even when crowds are limited?
Like grocery stores, having one-way aisles and clearly plotted routes are an easy solution. Of course, in a grocery store, if you forget to grab butter, you can backtrack, but in a museum, it’s less likely that visitors will have to go against the grain, so forming traffic flows ensures that everyone will have access to even the most popular paintings while being safe. We just might need a guard to make sure no one spends too much time taking selfies with the Mona Lisa.
Rethinking gift shops
It sounds trite, but museums shouldn’t forget that gift shops are still a vital part of the experience. More than ever, visitors – especially children – will want some sort of proof that they actually went somewhere.
All of these rules need to apply to the shops, as well. Perhaps museums can repurpose open-air space for a more open-air bazaar-like experience, instead of having one designated store in the museum. Limited entry for stores, lobby pick-ups for orders online or from a counter, and a limited selection of items are all tactics that will help minimize traffic without devaluing the museum’s merchandise.
Promoting underdog museums
Finally, by limiting the number of visitors on a given day, museums will create an environment where underdog attractions may thrive. Imagine telling a visitor they can go to the British Museum or the Postal Museum in London. Chances are, they’ll choose the bigger attraction and head to the British Museum. Tell that same visitor that they can only visit the Postal Museum, and they still might say no, but there’s at least more of a chance they’ll say yes. When we travel, we look for experiences, and often travelers won’t balk when choices are made for them in the name of safety.
It’s the same at the grocery store. Lines are too big at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods? Maybe it’s time to try that little grocer up the street that you always thought was too expensive or too chic. Museums can move in the same direction, working together in a destination to promote the little guys when the big name attractions are operating at capacity. In normal times, would a museum promote a competitor? No, but these aren’t normal times.
This is just the beginning, bandage fixes for a world that wants to open while keeping viral infections at bay. Thinking long-term to the role that museums play in our world and how visitors interact with them, however, will lead to even bigger changes. First, however, let’s get the doors back open before we reinvent the wheel.
Looking for ideas to get your museum open again following the COVID-19 pandemic? DCI has been helping cultural institutions for 60 years. Get in touch with Karyl Leigh Barnes at [email protected] to learn how you can tap into this experience for your museum’s benefit.