On the Road: Post-COVID Reopening Trends and Opportunities

I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.

Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?

Travel is growing across the country and hotels are experiencing it first. Every hotel mentioned that they’ve been sold out on weekends and frequently on weekdays since April. At a Home2 Hotel in Amarillo, Texas, they’ve been sold out every day since April except for four days. At a Hampton Inn in Zanesville, Ohio, they’ve been sold out everyday for the last two months and their guests are equally on business and vacation. Even more important, travelers are making their plans at the last minute. At an Aloft Hotel in Oklahoma City, the manager mentioned that their sold-out status happens just a few days in advance. On Thursday, they’ll have plenty of rooms for the weekend and by Friday, they’re sold out.

With little advance notice, hotels are scrambling to fill positions–and so are other businesses. I saw “help wanted” signs everywhere and in a lengthy conversation with a hotel manager, she mentioned she just finished training her last front desk staff person but housekeeping was far behind, which explained their housekeeping-on-request policy (which they confusingly call, “stayover service”). She mentioned that they’ve increased the housekeeper’s wages from $11 to $12, but they still have difficulty attracting qualified staff, and when they do, they don’t stay for more than a few weeks. And she recognized that wages couldn’t go much higher for housekeepers without affecting everyone else on staff because as a hotel manager, she earned $15 per hour.

A sign at the entrance door of a restaurant in New Mexico asking for patience “as we are short handed and training.”

Customers are frustrated by the lower level of service due to inexperienced or insufficient staff. It’s acute at hotels and restaurants but I’ve noticed it as well at museums. At a popular exhibit of stingrays at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum in Missouri, I asked the staff member standing in front of the tank about the origin of the stingrays. He said he didn’t know–he was just directing visitors forward and nicely suggested I needed to ask someone else. Some museums and historic sites have reduced operating hours or closed buildings to compensate for reduced staff levels, but haven’t updated their websites accordingly.

How Museums and Historic Sites Can Respond More Quickly to Reopening

  1. On the home page of your museum’s website, provide key information on hours and expectations for visiting. Don’t contain it to your usual “plan your visit” page, but add it to your home page so it’s immediately visible. Hunting for the hours you are open can be challenging because the terms vary from museum to museum, and the links are in different places. Make it EASY for people to visit your museum. A complication will convince them to go elsewhere.
  2. While you’re updating your website, update your admission fees. I found websites with incorrect admission fees at museums big and small. Families really hate discovering that admission will be an extra $10 and museums look like dopes that can’t handle something as simple as updating a website.
  3. Highway and building construction is happening everywhere and could affect access to your museum. I found highway exits closed, streets rerouted, and signs removed in every state. At the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, construction closed the main road. Without GPS, it would have been very difficult to reach the Cultural Center through the winding neighborhood streets and around an elevated interstate. On your website, warn travelers about changes to the major highways leading to your museum and offer easy-to-understand alternatives. Remember that tourists will be unfamiliar with your city, so train the staff answering the phone on providing directions. I’m surprised how often the front desk staff have a narrow understanding of the neighborhood. They’ll know the route they take to the museum but if it’s from another direction, they’ll have no clue.
  4. If access to your museum or historic site is limited, consider alternatives. Allow people to visit the grounds to see the historic house exterior and the landscape. Provide temporary interpretive signs outside. Suggest other nearby historic sites or museums to visit. Create a guided tour that can be enjoyed on a cell phone. Think of ways to be your community’s concierge, even if when you’re closed. It’s a much better experience for visitors than walking up to your front door to only discover a sign that reads, “Thank you for visiting. This exhibition space is currently closed.”
  5. Rethink your guidelines and policies for health and safety and aim for consistency with other businesses that serve the same audiences (such as hotels and restaurants). It is incredibly confusing for tourists and while they tend to be adventurous, the plethora of varying expectations becomes overwhelming and exhausting. Recognize that visitors assume the museum to be “back to normal” but if you can’t meet that expectation, warn them well in advance and several times. Figure out if you’re participating in “safety theatre” and making things far worse than necessary. I’m not going to offer advice on the specifics except that it be as consistent and science-based as possible.
Boy, this museum and I have very different definitions of what “visiting” means.