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Museum Operations in the age of Covid19


Wayne Atherholt is a thirty-year museum veteran and former art museum director who is director of cultural affairs for the City of St. Petersburg.  Photo: Courtesy Helen Tilston


Each state in the United States will have a different plan.  In Florida, museums may open at 25% capacity starting Monday, 4th May 2020, as long as it isn’t interactive exhibits such as children’s science centers.  But prior to opening, there is an awful lot to consider when operating in a safe environment and there is no rule book on how to do this and very little information online.  We provide this information as a courtesy for our St Petersburg museums and for the entire museum community understanding that each museum is different and will be able to re-open on their own schedule depending on availability of sanitizer, masks, new operations manuals and a capable staff.


Start Your Museum or Attraction Plan for Re-opening

While museums have been closed for over a month in most cases, the time is coming to start thinking about what does your museum look like in operation during the threat of Covid19. And just because you will be allowed to re-open, doesn’t mean you will return to operational activities from two months ago. There is a lot to consider.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, and recommendations will likely change and change again, this will help you and your staff to start planning for the day that eventually will arrive when you will be able to open your doors again. And while re-opening at some point is going to happen, it certainly can’t happen any time soon without serious planning, purchasing, retraining and communicating to the general public.

Guest Experience Questions

Let’s first take a look at the guest experience. Assuming you’ve communicated that you’re open and what the expectations and new reality is, have a look at what your guest will experience right the way through the museum experience.When they arrive will they need to touch doors? And if they do, will there be contactless hand sanitizer nearby? Who fills it? Can you even get it from a supplier?

On to the admissions desk or box office. Is there a protective shield for staff working with the public? Is the floor marked for physical distancing for the general public while they wait in a queue? Will staff be wearing gloves? Will they be trained in the new reality of handling money and by whom? What will the procedures be for cleaning this area and how often? And who does it?

This is just the start of a visit. If you go through an entire visitor experience, you’ll discover there are areas where you will need to make major changes. Perhaps your museum lends itself to a linear experience where flow is controlled and there is a clear route to take.

You’ve probably seen the one way markings in supermarkets!  As you can see there are a lot of questions and the answers are in many cases not that easy.

Learning from our Asian colleagues

As American and European museums look to what their new normal will look like, we can learn an awful lot from Asian attractions and museums. Many, especially indoor attractions (i.e. museums), reopened and had to close again. This is particularly true in China, Hong Kong and Japan.

Here are some of the new procedures that have been and are being used by Asian counterparts that likely will create a framework for other museums and attractions:

  1. Limiting visitor numbers – Some theme parks have cut their visitor caps by 50% which will allow visitors to feel much more safe. With indoor attractions it is even more critical to limit the number of visitors. There are ticketing systems that can handle this online and in advance as well.  In Florida, museums have been allowed to open at 25% of capacity.
  2. Taking temperatures – This has become fairly standard at Asian attractions and likely would be part of any re-opening for American, British and European museums.
  3. Cashless payments only – While much of America still hasn’t gone to contactless payments, there is still that option with the contactless credit cards and Apple/Google pay. Otherwise, the old school pin pad can be used but that in itself creates a disinfecting issue after it is used.
  4. Health certificates/QR codes – In some countries citizens are given certificates or QR codes and only those that meet certain requirements are allowed in. I don’t see that happening in America which makes some of these other options all the more critical.  Consider testing for all staff and letting the public know this is your standard operating procedure.
  5. Masks – These are worn by guests and in some cases required. Same would go for staff. Would you feel safe going to an indoor space that doesn’t require masks? And do you have a supplier for these yet?
  6. Extra cleaning – It goes without saying that museums and attractions will need to revisit their cleaning schedules and most likely invest in additional labor to keep their attractions clean. It will also require materials and cleansers.
  7. Hand sanitizer – This would need to be at any point of contacts such as doors, toilets, box office, etc.  It should be contactless as well.
  8. Guides – Tour guides will be a thing of the past for now. Consider disposable guides that can be recycled (but not used over and over without sanitizing and then who is going to trust that).
  9. Controlling traffic patterns – Supermarkets learned this early on. They are now a series of one way aisles. Many audio guided blockbuster exhibitions ran this way for years. Think about your museum as a linear story – tell it – and make your guests feel safer.
  10. Those who operate retail and food/beverage facilities will need to work on additional measures for those industries as well.
  11. Experiential exhibits – For those museums that have some experiential exhibits, especially children’s museums, there is an entire layer of Covid19 issues surrounding the safe operations of a facility like that. This is primarily aimed at guiding art museums or museums with limited touch exhibits to a plan. A hands-on museum will require a considerable shift in how it operates.  In Florida, this type of museum has not been allowed to re-open while others have.

Rethink the Communications Plan

You’ll need to work in tandem with local officials as well as state officials and your local DMO (Destination Management Organisation) on communicating the measures you’re taking to make the traveling public safe while visiting your attraction.

This isn’t intended to provide tips on communication but once your attraction opens it will need to be communicated in a much more personal way than whatever you were doing before.  Likely you will be working with more locals and drive market visitors initially as the public gets used to traveling under new conditions. But like so much, what is communicated is likely to change considerably.

Be prepared. Be cautious. And be what museums are: trustworthy.

Tourism & Attractions Marketing: Maps and Directories

How to Effectively Use Maps & Directories to Increase Tourism Visitation

Maps & Directories

There’s so many publications out there even in this web world!  Yeah, I still hear that as often as I heard it twenty five years ago.  Seems like there are publications everywhere that you should be advertising in.  The publisher always thinks you must be in their publication.  But of course you probably can’t be in all of them.  So I’ll take a look at some publications by type to try to give you a better idea how to wade through the many publications that are out there.  If you’re not in a highly developed tourism market, you might be lucky and only have one or two.  For this post, we’ll look just at maps and directories.  We’ll look at in-room publications and destination guides another time.

Maps and directories have been published for years in Florida.  These two vintage maps are for particular roads, the Orange Blossom Trail and the Florida Turnpike.

Maps and directories have been published for years in Florida. These two vintage maps are for particular roads, the Orange Blossom Trail and the Florida Turnpike.


When an advertising sales person says things like “we’re in every hotel and welcome center” you might want to be cautious.  Every is a strong word.  I base an advertising decision on the facts when buying tourist advertising.  Find out where is the list of hotels or tourist locations the product is in and then spot-check some of those locations.  Ask the front desk what publication they refer visitors to.  Check to see what map the bellmen use to direct guests.  If the hotel still has a concierge, ask them.

In the end, you want a map or guide/directory to an area that is actively used by visitors.  If it is only available at a few locations, then it isn’t worth as much to you.  You want your message to get to people at a nearby airport as they arrive at your destination?  Then go check out what you see and encounter as you actually arrive at the airport.  One airport in Florida actually had its information center on the departures level and was therefore not much use to attractions, however, there were maps and guidebooks distributed at arrivals areas.  Always do your own checking and always do it from the visitor’s perspective.

Charlotte Harbor in Florida has a guide and map that is distributed just about everywhere in that area.

Charlotte Harbor in Florida has a guide and map that is distributed just about everywhere in that area.


It really does come down to numbers in the tourism advertising arena.  How many maps are being produced and distributed to your potential customers?  It takes as much money and effort to place an ad in a map (or any tourist publication for that matter) that reaches two people as it does to reach two hundred thousand people.  At some point, you need to draw the line what you won’t do because the numbers are too small.  Only you or your consultant or advertising agency will know that.  If it is a monthly map, how many are produced and distributed and how many are tossed at the end of the month.  Get to know your real numbers.


This is always a challenge for anyone in marketing, however, this isn’t that challenging in tourism marketing.  Just go to an area of your town or city where there are a lot of tourists looking for things and see what they are using.  What map or guide do they have?  In some destinations you see the tourist after tourist with the same maps or guides physically out looking for something to do.  It is more challenging now with smart phones because everyone has their own map with them but they still pick up and use the old style maps and guides.

When you have your graphics person create the ad, you may want a coupon, but you definitely want the look to be like your brochure.  Don’t change fonts.  Be consistent.  Look to see what your ad would look like on the map.  Does it stand out?  Does it drive someone to want to visit?  Does it help the visitor come to you?

Within The Destination 

The destination is where the visitor to going to spend their vacation.  This might be something as broad as New York or as narrow as Jekyll Island.  Each day, while in destination, the visitor decides what to do and where to go.  They may have seen something online before arriving in destination and decide that is what they want to do.  Or they may have no idea and try to figure it out by looking at maps, asking the front desk or waiter, picking up a visitors guide of sorts or any number of things.

If you do most of your marketing to visitors once they are already in destination then you are in the scavenger business.  Most attractions are that way.  You’re now competing with your colleagues for things to do.  This could include shopping, a beach or mountain day depending on weather, a museum or a free art gallery.  You work together to get the visitor to come to your town, but you compete once they’re there.

So these scavenger attractions probably aren’t reaching a visitor before they are in destination.  But they should be cooperating with each other to get them there.  Once in destination, this is where the attractions try to to lure in the visitor.  And maps and guides are what we are looking at today.  These can be effective in reaching tourists if their distribution is right for your attraction.

The map for the Florida Attractions Association has been produced for many years and was distributed at each member attraction in addition to welcome centers and brochure racks.

The map for the Florida Attractions Association has been produced for many years and was distributed at each member attraction in addition to welcome centers and brochure racks.


Years ago, there was a brochure distributor that just serviced campgrounds in the region of Florida I was working in at the time.  This was before anyone ever heard of a luxury RV resort too!  I was responsible for marketing at a museum and it just didn’t fit our demographic though I was, and am, a huge believer in brochure distribution.  So you might have to do some research on who your best customers are and go after similar ones in destination.  If most of your visitors are staying in four and five star resorts, that tells you that probably you should not bother focusing on interstate exit locations for motels.

So far we’ve covered having a brochure (we’ll cover distributing it soon enough) and now maps and guides.  Just remember to really do your homework on distribution.  There are plenty of guides and maps out there.  Pick the one that has the best distribution and usage with regard to your visitors.

You should now have a better idea on how to start a tourism marketing campaign for your non-profit attraction, museum or destination.  The brochure followed by some key print ads.  We will look at plenty of other things you should be doing but we’re still working on basic foundation stuff for now.