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Life after lockdown: Enterprises need to plan for physical distancing and a cashless economy

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Sabine Lehmann is founder and CEO of Curiositas and founder and chair of the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions. A former managing director of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company, she holds an MBA from UCT Graduate School of Business.

When lockdown ends, people are going to want safe spaces in which to meet, do business and have fun. What can venues do to get ready?

China has ended lockdown in Wuhan, the city where the novel coronavirus first appeared, but it has become clear a return to “normal” life is not on the cards for that city — or indeed anywhere.

After 10 weeks in lockdown, residents of Wuhan are reeling, with the New York Times reporting that re-opened businesses are facing difficulties in getting back up to speed and that strict regulations on people’s movements remain in place.

In South Africa, we should be planning for when we, too, are allowed to venture out. For popular entertainment and tourist venues, this is especially important.

Attractions such as museums, national parks, aquaria and water parks and shopping malls are an important part of the economy and need to be ready to respond to plenty of pent-up demand.

US and UK polls indicate that museums and other cultural attractions will be at the top of the list of places people will want to visit in order to spend time with family and friends again.

Research in the US by Colleen Dillenschneider looks at adults’ “intention to visit” cultural entities and indicates that “most people are currently maintaining comparatively strong intentions to visit” within the next three to six months.

Similarly, in the UK, BVA BDRC, a consumer insights consultancy, has been tracking consumer sentiment towards travel, leisure and hospitality. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they would “go on a day out to a visitor attraction” within the next three to six months. It should be noted that this relates to the US and UK summer, traditionally indicating higher intentions to visit places than during winter.

Dampened economic activity and depressed international tourism will affect South African visitor numbers for the foreseeable future. But what can managers of facilities and attractions do now to minimise the impact?

Firstly, they need to assess their sites and customer bases to understand what demand might look like after lockdown. Open, outdoor sites are likely to be in higher demand than closed, confined spaces. A place that was heavily dependent on international visitors will look very different to the attraction that was dependent on local and domestic travel.

Sites that depended on older customers may see very different demand levels to those catering to a younger profile. Venues for conferences, events and concerts will have a different recovery trajectory to those that rely on individual visitors. What role will school groups play in the next six months, as the school year remains significantly disrupted?

Restarting micro-economies is likely to happen in segments, with highly localised demand at first (i.e. the closest neighbourhoods to customers), followed by daytrippers who can visit in cars or via public transport, then domestic visitors from further afield, and eventually international visitors. Timelines for such evolution are unknown, but destinations need to start assessing their historical consumer data to understand likely demand curves.

Places designed to accommodate large groups will clearly need a rethink, with physical distancing and contactless transactions essential. Such measures might well be anathema to business people hardwired into attracting crowds. Structural changes could be costly and take time to set up.

Fortunately, the seeds of both physical distancing and a contactless economy already exist.

Physical distancing, for example, exists in the form of VIP queues, fast-track queues, special opening times (e.g. for pensioners, school groups or paid-up members) and there is experience with reduced capacity, such as during winter or off-seasons.

Contactless transactions are a reality in the form of pre-sale of tickets online, the use of credit cards or Snapscan for on-site payments, and membership cards as entrance tickets. How can this be escalated to ensure that less hard cash changes hands?

The phrase contactless economy refers not only to the exchange of money but also human contact. Enterprises that rely on direct human contact as part of the experience will need to look specifically at these contact points and assess how things can be done differently and safely.

Things are unlikely to get back to normal anytime soon, but we won’t be in lockdown forever, either. When we get out, our priorities and needs will have shifted and the sooner we start planning for this new reality the better for us all. DM

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