Feature: A post-pandemic LBE landscape

Just like catastrophes such as World War I, World War II and the Great Depression, the coronavirus crisis is acting as a catalyst, accelerating trends that were already underway and changing how we live, work and play. Once the corona-crisis is over, what will the long-term impact on consumers’ out-of-home entertainment behaviour be? Randy White, CEO and co-founder of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, shares his observations and predictions for post-pandemic location-based entertainment.

Consumers of out-of-home entertainment, cultural and leisure experiences after lockdown will be different to the consumers we knew just a few months ago. A heightened concern for safety from disease is just one of the many ways their behaviours and expectations will have changed. 

The effects of epidemics extend long term after they are over. Diseases permanently alter society by creating new and better practices and habits, and Covid-19 will permanently change behaviours when it comes to staying disease-free, as well as expectations for businesses and safety.

When we get to the other side of the pandemic and can leave our homes, the out-of-home leisure competitive landscape is sure to have a new normal. Many location-based entertainment venues will not reopen due to insolvency. There will be less competition. The percent of LBE and FEC venues that will go permanently dark will depend on how long the pandemic quarantine and social distancing lasts. However, the behaviour of post-pandemic consumers will be forever changed.

The pandemic has accelerated the trend of the increasing use of screen-based and at-home digital entertainment, including the adoption of many digital options by people who were non-users before the crisis. Some of this shift is sure to stick. Many consumers will be deeper in debt and cash poor, limiting their purchases of out-of-home entertainment. Unemployment will be higher than it was pre-pandemic. So, while the out-of-home entertainment supply will have decreased, so will have consumer demand.

However, although consumers will be craving a return to out-of-home experiences of all types, as well as face-to-face socialisation, the fear of going out into public that the coronavirus has instilled in people will not vanish overnight. It will be a slow ramp up to a return to out-of-home public life. In Wuhan, China, even after the stay-at-home orders were lifted, some people developed agoraphobia and still refuse to leave their homes.

All these factors make it highly likely that the location-based entertainment businesses that make it to the post-pandemic world will still experience a highly competitive landscape where supply will exceed consumer demand for at least some time. The ones left standing may find that initially at least, competition for consumers’ attendance and spending might in fact be fiercer than pre-pandemic.


Looking ahead and practical actions

A recent coronavirus webinar hosted by Dataessential presented current consumer research on what people expect they will continue to do when social distancing is ended (see below)

The public are sure to consider any business more threatening to their health than they did pre-corona. They are going to have heightened awareness of the environment and expectations for their safety from viruses and germs and the way the business is operated. The future success of any location-based business will depend on how well it adapts to the new normal of the post-corona consumers’ expectations.

So, whether it is a family entertainment centre (FEC), eatertainment facility, theme park, zoo, museum, agritourism farm or other leisure destination, it will be vital to have standards and practices in place so people will feel it’s a safe place to visit.

Here are some of my current thoughts on post- lockdown best practices based on our current knowledge of coronavirus transmission (which is still rapidly unfolding based on worldwide scientific research) to not only protect staff and guests, but also to project a reassuring image that the facility is safe to visit. 

Facility design

Minimising facility communal surfaces that people touch and having aggressive disinfecting practices for the ones they do touch will be important. Key areas of danger are doors and restrooms. It would be wise to implement hand-washing stations, and potentially even disinfect the whole facility every night, like Delta Airlines will soon be doing after every flight. 

Person-to-person transmission 

This can come from both guests and staff. Maybe by the time out-of-home leisure venues open, the government will be issuing immunity passports for people who have recovered from the COVID-19. Will we need to have a door person to check for these, and if not, then to check for people’s temperatures? Perhaps we will need to require all guests and staff to wear masks. If guests don’t come with one, we could offer them for sale. Just like grocery and other stores, shields may need to be placed in front of all POS or other type transaction stations to further protect staff. 

Social distancing

The ability to maintain social distancing is impacted by the density of people in a venue. The more square feet there is per person, the easier it is to social distance. If social distancing is still required, this will require restricting the capacity of venues, especially indoor ones. In turn, this will restrict overall attendance, especially when the vast majority of attendance at most venues occurs at peak times on Friday evenings, weekends and holidays. To maintain overall viable attendance numbers, venues may need to find ways to convince more people to come at non-peak times. Social distancing will be especially challenging for wait service food and beverage, as it is next to impossible for staff to serve food and drinks at a bar or table while six feet away from guests. Having queue lines that maintain adequate social distancing will also be challenging if not impractical. A timed reservation system that texts guests when it is their turn or similar technology can eliminate the need for queue lines.  

Communal equipment

The parts of entertainment and play equipment that guest touch will need to be disinfected after use. This includes such things as the controls and buttons on games, steering wheels on go-karts, helmets for high speed go-karts, hold bars on rides, VR masks, laser tag equipment, golf clubs, etc. This can become very challenging for things like ten-pin bowling balls with their finger holes. Perhaps there will need to be hand-washing or sanitizer stations at lanes and exit points for go-karts and other rides. Things like ropes courses and trampolines may prove impossible or impractical to disinfect after every use and might not be opened until there is wide vaccination.  

Air movement

Research shows that blowing air will move virus infected droplets more than six feet. HVAC air circulation will need to be checked to stop any significant air flows where people will be. Overhead fans may need to be inactivated. Outdoor dining patios may not be considered safe since a breeze can spread droplets further, especially since people won’t be wearing masks while dining and drinking. 

Touchscreens & keyboards

Many entertainment facilities use touch screens or keyboards for sign-in, filling out waivers, etc. Wherever possible, they should be eliminated. Otherwise, they will need to be disinfected after ever use. If paper forms are substituted, the pen will need to be disinfected after every use. The same goes for signing on a screen for a credit card purchase, which credit card companies no longer require. When leisure venues can reopen, it will be important to meet what will have become the expectations of college-degreed consumers. Research is showing that they are the most concerned about and fearful of catching coronavirus. Prior to the lockdown, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of all out-of-home entertainment and arts admissions and fees (73%). They are definitely the target market that venues will want to appeal to when they reopen. 

Randy White is CEO and co-founder of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, which is widely recognised as a world-leading expert on the design and realisation of adult, family and children oriented, location-based leisure, entertainment and recreation projects. The company’s projects are known for their economical designs and long-term profitability. Based in Missouri, White Hutchinson has worked for over 570 clients in 37 countries across North and Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and has won seventeen first place design awards.

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