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5 Takeaways from IAAPA’s “Safe, Secure and Successful Operations in the New Normal” Panel

Attractions from all industries are dealing with the challenges of social distancing and how to operate safely in a COVID environment. We had the privilege of sharing the IAAPA Education stage with Matt Blumhardt from Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari and Daine Appleberry of Audubon Nature Institute to discuss ways to enhance the guest experience, boost revenue, build brand loyalty and serve guests safely during this challenging time. Below are our top 5 takeaways and recommendations from the session.

Holiday World Employees

1. Safety Matters the Most. Be a Role Model in Your Community.

Both of our panelists emphasized the importance of keeping guests and staff safe above all else. When Audubon Nature Institute was planning for re-opening, “Everything started with safety,” remarked Daine Appleberry. “We wanted to go beyond local and state guidelines, even more conservative than what was recommended,” he said, giving Audubon an opportunity to become the community leader in best practices. As an example, they decided to plan their pawprint markers at the zoo 8-10 feet apart rather than 6 feet apart, and they started out at a slightly lower capacity than what the state and local governments mandated.

“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe,” added Matt Blumhardt of Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari. In order to do so, the park worked with the accesso team to implement a custom-branded virtual queuing system which they provided to guests at no charge. Instead of it being a way for guests to “jump the lines,” for popular rides, this new inLine reservation system allows guests to “virtually wait,” facilitating safe social distancing. “Our goal was to keep hundreds of people from crowding in one location at a time,” he said.

Both parks also added plexiglass to Point of Sale stations, required staff to wear masks and installed a large amount of hand sanitizer stations throughout their venues.

Audubon Nature e Commerce Ticket

2. Advance Ticketing is Critical in a COVID Environment—And It’s Here to Stay.

Another central element to reopening safely is getting rid of lengthy bottlenecks to purchase tickets onsite, which means that more venues are making their online storefront their main one. “The front gate is the biggest bottleneck and the biggest opportunity to have social distancing challenges,” said Blumhardt. “How do we handle that 2-3 hour period when we would normally have thousands of people showing up?” To solve for this, Holiday World made advance ticketing a requirement, which meant that sales would funnel through their eCommerce ticketing site (powered by the award winning accesso Passport ticketing suite). “We’d already seen a movement toward online ticketing,” Blumhardt continued, “And the pandemic really just accelerated it.”

Audubon Nature Institute also implemented online-only ticketing, with differing capacities allotted at specific timeslots for member tickets, general admission tickets and comp tickets (along with a small percentage reserved to accommodate the occasional walk-up patron).

Both operators agree that the benefits of advance ticketing extend well beyond solving social distancing challenges. For theme parks, it can create a better guest experience from the point of entry, and as Blumhardt points out, it can also help mitigate the cash impact with bad weather. Venues can also use up-sells and cross-sells to generate additional income on their online ticketing site, whether it’s through the sale of complimentary products or even collecting donations, as Audubon does using functionality in the accesso Passport eCommerce ticketing platform. “We added a pop-up screen to our eCommerce purchasing flow, so when you add your tickets to the cart, a window pops up for our Audubon Recovery Fund,” said Appleberry. “We’ve seen a huge, huge impact and success in guests donating to our recovery. If we had not gone with that option, we would have left a lot of money on the table.”

Audubon Nature One Way Sign

3. Communication is Key When Reopening Safely.

Guests want to know what to expect when visiting an attraction or theme park. Reassuring them of their safety and communicating any new changes in protocol is paramount. “Communication was key to our re-opening,” said Appleberry. “Our entire process [for admissions and throughout the guest experience] changed.”

Both venues added lots of content on their website and social media channels to help educate guests during this time. Audubon added prompts in their eCommerce ticketing system to alert the guest during the purchase flow of restrictions and guidelines that must be followed for COVID-19, so there would be no surprises upon arrival. Holiday World published training videos for their new virtual queuing system so that guests could learn how to use the system prior to their visit.

Having ample on-site signage can also help venues boost their brand and facilitate a smoother visit. For example, Holiday World offers “Santa-tizer” stations, while Audubon has signs posted to remind guests of one-way traffic (“You Are Swimming Upstream”).

4. There is an Opportunity to Redefine the Guest Experience for the Better.

While the pandemic has certainly created its fair share of challenges for venue operators, it has also created an opportunity to redefine the guest experience for the better. Allowing guests to virtually queue for rides at Holiday World means that guests have more time to enjoy restaurants, retail and even other rides, which Blumhardt says has resulted in a significant per cap increase in spending, almost double in certain areas. Reducing wait times at F&B locations has also had a positive impact on the guest experience: “COVID has forced us to take a look at how we operate our larger restaurants,” Blumhardt adds. “Complaints were non-existent this year, and we can process people much more quickly.”

Many organizations have been forced to operate with limited staff due to the pandemic, and some are embracing an “all hands on deck” approach. For example, Audubon Nature Institute sought to balance how to bring people back while reopening, asking each active employee to work at least 4 shifts in operations. While certainly the wish would be to have the ability to bring everyone back at once, there was a small silver lining to be found: every team member had an opportunity to participate in the guest experience first-hand. “From the Senior Director of HR to our Director of Special Events, no one was spared!” Appleberry said. Employing this approach can lead to a greater understanding of the guest experience and provide invaluable perspective that team members can bring back to their work. Plus, it sends a strong message to the community: “It showed that, as a team, we can get this operation off the ground and showed our guests that we’re all in this together,” he added.

Holiday World Mobile In Line System

5. Stay Flexible: Test, Analyze and Make Continued Improvements

Venues can analyze data from their ticketing systems as well as guest feedback in order to make educated decisions that can have a big impact. “I would advise anyone in admissions to really take a dive into your analytics and see what low-hanging fruit you are leaving on the table,” said Appleberry.

For example, using the accesso Siriusware Point of Sale Ticketing system’s reporting, Appleberry ran reports for a three-month period on attendance, retail revenue and concessions revenue in order to generate a forecast calendar. “It ended up being pretty accurate,” said Appleberry, “and it helped prepare us to be able to better serve our guests.” Audubon also used accesso Siriusware reporting to help refine the product mix: “We saw about a 40% abandonment rate for our member tickets per day at the aquarium,” he said, “So we decided to re-allocate some of these to general admission tickets.”

Similarly, by moving exclusively to an advance-purchasing model, Holiday World can now uncover trends about purchasing to help with forecasting staffing needs. “We learned that roughly half of our guests would purchase (their tickets) the day of, or the day before, and having that data was huge,” said Blumhardt.

Another important channel for understanding the guest experience is guest feedback. “I would advise everyone to really partner with your social media teams and marketing teams to look at every bit of feedback you are receiving,” recommended Appleberry.

Special thanks to IAAPA, Program Manager of Global Education & Member Services, Rena Quinata and Amusement Parks & Attractions Committee Member, Sarah Clarke for their support during the development of this panel. If you have any ques­tions or would like to see how accesso’s suite of solu­tions can help your venue reopen safe­ly, con­tact us today. We’d love to help!

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources for theme parks, attractions and institutions seeking to serve guests safely and successfully.