With lockdown restrictions easing across the UK, many cultural institutions are beginning to think seriously about their plans for reopening. Naturally, this is not as simple as just unlocking the doors and returning to how things used to be; museums, cinemas, theatres, zoos, and so forth will need to adopt the same kinds of measures that are now familiar from supermarkets, including amended hours, reduced services, one-way systems, additional or different entrances, and so forth.
All this will require careful planning, made even more challenging because at many cultural institutions, most if not all of the operational staff required to feed into or enact these plans have been on furlough for several months — and may need to continue on furlough for the time being, despite plans for reopening. Like so much in the arts, it will require a tremendous effort from a small group of very passionate individuals to open safely to the public again. Put simply, cultural institutions in the current climate have a huge amount to do and very few people to do it.
Don't forget about digital
If some of the above already sounds familiar, it should. Just a few months ago, right before the pandemic hit, the Arts Council published its Digital Culture report for 2019. As I wrote at the time:
A big danger, as cultural institutions reopen, is that the same pattern will play itself out in COVID preparations. Of course, there has been a big change since the Digital Culture report was published four months ago: cultural institutions have woken up to the importance of digital because they've had to. But that's been about finding any solution to keep audiences engaged and income trickling in, against a set of circumstances where digital is basically the only option. When it comes to reopening, digital is likely to go back to being an afterthought, because the focus is understandably going to be on the bricks and mortar.
Obviously getting buildings ready to reopen safely should be everyone's primary focus. But if nobody is specifically tasked with digital preparations, much of that work on the physical venue will be for nought. Over the last four months, audiences have become accustomed to doing everything online, so your digital experience is no longer an optional add-on, if it ever was; now it's a fundamental part of the experience, before, during and after the physical visit.
Without a thoughtfully updated website, visitors won't be sure you've reopened; they won't feel confident you've put sufficient safety procedures in place; or they won't follow your new procedures when they arrive because they don't know about them.
In a way, UK institutions have a bit of an advantage here, because their counterparts in other countries have already started to reopen — so there are lessons to be learned from their digital successes and missteps. Here we've rounded up a few examples of the patterns we've seen so far.
The bare minimum
The biggest challenge with COVID preparations is that the changes you're making to your physical presence likely touch almost all aspects of the visitor experience. For your digital presence, that means there's a lot that needs updating in a lot of different places. For instance, most cultural institutions will have a ticketing or admissions page, a "how to find us" page, an FAQ page, and so forth. Much of the information on these pages is also duplicated and repeated across many other pages.
The problem with updating every piece of information on every page is that you're taking on a great deal of "update debt"; every time a guideline changes, you have to go through every single page again hunting for errant, out-of-date information. That's why, especially with minimal staffing resources, many venues are choosing to put all their COVID-related info on a single page, like https://barringtonstageco.org/distancing/ or https://www.mfah.org/visit/visiting-update/.
The advantage of this approach is that customers with concerns about visiting will find all relevant information in one place — and on all the other pages you can simply insert a line saying "For the most up to date information during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit our COVID page." Sounds great, right? Minimum effort for staff, maximum information and reassurance for customers.
Well, yes and no. For one thing, just because you have all the information in one place, that doesn't mean it's easy for customers to find what they need. Think about why you have separate "Booking information" and "Plan your visit" pages to begin with. Would you have structured your website this way if you truly believed that the best way to convey a lot of complex information was a single page of text?
The truth is, that's not how people use websites. They don't want to read through 1,200 words to find an answer to the single question they have; they want to be guided to that answer so quickly and smoothly they didn't even realise it was happening.
That brings us to the second issue with a single COVID page: what do you do if people (1) can't find it or (2) don't read it? The Barrington page above is pretty comprehensive, but at the time of writing it's buried in the third carousel item on the homepage — which some research shows only 5-10% of users will actually see. And if 10% of your visitors turn up without a mask, at the wrong entrance, at the wrong time, without an e-ticket, then all of a sudden minimum effort for your back office employees becomes maximum effort for your frontline ones.
Ensuring your message gets heard
Most institutions we've looked at aren't just posting a COVID page and hoping people find it, of course; they're doing all they can to put it right under their customers' noses.
If, for example, you visit the Barrington website, miss the carousel item, and start buying tickets, the information is linked again next to the seat picker. The Castello di Rivoli in Turin takes an even more aggressive approach, presenting users with a pop-up message listing all their COVID policies as soon as you click "Buy Tickets". This message must be actively dismissed before you can continue. Like the link on Barrington's seat picker, the idea is presumably that this will ensure anyone visiting the venue is informed before they purchase.
This sounds logical, but it's also not without its issues. First of all, if someone's already at the point where they're clicking "Buy Tickets", they probably just want to finish their purchase and get on with their lives. How often do you read the T&Cs when you're shopping online? Putting the COVID information in the checkout process isn't a bad idea per se, but it's equally not a guarantee people will read it carefully. They may just skim to the bottom and tick the box to make the message go away, without really taking in the information at all.
Second of all, if someone is nervous about visiting your venue and looking for reassurance that it's safe, the one thing they're not going to do is click "Buy Tickets." Putting the information in the purchase flow is preaching to the choir, when you should be proselytising to the unconverted.
That's why many more venues have opted for a prominent banner somewhere on the homepage, trumpeting for anyone who arrives that there are COVID measures in place. A small sample includes the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, and the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas. Oh, and another small attraction you may have heard of: Disney World.
Banners aren't a perfect solution either, though, especially when most websites already have at least one cookie notice banner, as well as newsletter sign-ups or other marketing pop-ups, and recently (quite rightly) statements about support for Black Lives Matter. With so many banners, very quickly your homepage can start to feel like it's buried under a stack of paper on a messy desk — and very quickly users can start just dismissing everything without thinking.
Making your message easier to digest
Even once you've corralled users to your COVID info page, you still have the problem we started with: nobody wants to read through a long, dense page of text to find the answer to one, simple question.
That's why, if you go to the COVID information page on the Disney World site, the first thing you see isn't text at all, but a video, summarising the key content from the rest of the page. Videos present their own challenges in terms of accessibility and user engagement, but Disney's eggs are no longer all in the same basket. If someone doesn't like reading a lot of text (or can't), the audio and video provides an alternative that might still get the information across.
Likewise, further down the page, information is presented visually and with short, impactful headlines, rather than in large and intimidating blocks of text. They tell you the top three things they're doing to keep you safe, and the top four things you need to do if you're planning a visit — and then, if you want more information on a specific topic, there are links to other pages where you can read in more detail. It's almost like a mini-website in itself.
Drafthouse Cinemas in the US take a very similar approach. Their homepage has a banner directing you to COVID information, and the first two sections of the homepage are also links to that same information. You really can't miss it, whether you've arrived to book tickets or just for reassurance — and better yet, it's presented playfully, in keeping with the venue's tone and branding. In other words, they've made the COVID messaging part of the "normal" experience.
They've also put together a video if you don't feel like reading, and while they haven't split the extensive information into multiple pages like Disney have, it's still presented visually and with clear breaks and headlines, to make it as easy as possible for users to navigate.
If you compare the Drafthouse page to, for example, the Cineworld one, you can see how crucial the difference is. I don't even live in the US and had never heard of Drafthouse before, but their COVID page makes me want to go there; the Cineworld page, by contrast, is an entry on their blog, with some generic graphics and a vague list of measures that don't offer much reassurance at all. How you present this information really matters.
The medium is the message
So far we've mostly looked at how venues and other attractions are updating their existing websites to communicate COVID information to customers. But there's another option too, similar to what Disney's page accomplishes: instead of trying to shoehorn a bunch of COVID information into the existing structure of your website, you can create something totally separate that's specifically designed to inform visitors and get them back through your doors.
The advantages of this approach are pretty clear, even from Disney's only sort-of implementation of it. You no longer have to figure out which pages you need to update, or which existing template or website section you need to repurpose to best accommodate your COVID information. (I mentioned that the Cineworld page is a blog post; if you look at their site it's not clear how else their staff might have been able to add it.) With a dedicated COVID mini-site you can make sure users find what they're looking for as effortlessly as they find things on your main site — because that's the only reason it exists.
Of course, once you start considering your COVID information as a separate digital entity, there's no limit to the other things you can start to do. In Germany, some venues are requiring users to download an app called GRID before their visit; not only does this help facilitate contact tracing if necessary, but it helps maintain social distancing at the venue by allowing for contactless entry, drinks purchases, and even tipping.
The fanciest example we've seen is the "COVID Safety Hub" offered by Realife Tech. Catering mainly to giant arenas like the O2, this custom-made suite of tools integrates with but sits separately from these venues' existing websites. It offers pre-ordering for food and drink, push notifications (again with an app) to remind customers to bring masks before they leave home, and even real-time heatmaps that can identify areas of congestion and dynamically redirect customers to different entrances in response.
Obviously this is beyond what most cultural institutions need — or can afford. But once you start thinking outside the box of your current website, you begin to see the possibilities for bringing more visitors back sooner, to a better experience, with even a modest add-on to your existing site. Perhaps you could offer a guided photographic tour of entering the venue, or make your own video, like Disney and the Drafthouse. If you're a museum you could include individual pages for your most popular exhibits, so that the person arriving just to see the Mona Lisa knows exactly how to do that without having to read through all the information about the rest of the museum.
The point is to show visitors that you've put a lot of careful thought into the entire re-opening experience.
The website matters
If you work at a cultural institution, website spending may seem like an extravagance when your budgets have already been so hammered by lockdown. But if giant arenas are willing to spend on AI heatmaps, that's a sign that even small theatres should at least be earmarking significant time for their digital response to COVID.
A single page with a lot of bullet points isn't just bad information design, it's a visitor's first impression of how carefully you've thought through your re-opening plans. So you need to make sure your online updates match the conscientiousness of your physical ones.
Otherwise, even the best laid reopening plans will only get you so far.