How Staff Can Maintain a Welcoming Environment with Social Distancing
At their heart, attractions and parks are highly social spaces where people join together in pursuit and celebration of fun. When the folks that operate the New Hampshire family entertainment center (FEC) Space Entertainment Center wanted to rebrand, they acknowledged the core mission of their business by incorporating the word “social” in the facility’s new name. But as they were getting ready to unveil the rechristened Block Party Social, the pandemic nixed their plans.
“We were joking that maybe we should call it, ‘Block Party Social Distancing,’” says Ron Weinberg, the FEC’s director of strategy and marketing.
Joking aside, Weinberg touches on pressing challenges that attractions face as they retool for the coronavirus era: How do places that are inherently social accommodate social distancing? How can they continue to project an image of carefree fun while adhering to “new normal” safety measures? How can employees provide the same quality of customer service while shielded behind a facemask and standing at least six feet away from guests?
Attractions are going to need to figure out new ways to connect with visitors, according to body language expert Patti Wood. The coach and consultant, who has worked with Ripley’s Believe It or Not and wrote “Snap, Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma,” says that physical touch, such as handshakes and high-fives, equals three hours of face-to-face interaction.
“It immediately establishes rapport and trust,” she notes. “It helps make people feel safe in the environment.”
With the shortcut of physical touch now not an option, Wood suggests alternative body language behaviors. For example, even at 100 feet away guests would register broad waving motions from employees. “It signals the primitive brain that this place is safe,” she says. “At 15 feet, we break through the stranger barrier.”
So, what could employees do within the zone of 15 feet to the prescribed social distance of 6 feet? Wood says anything that would make guests feel comfortable and communicate fun, such as juggling, dancing, or generating bubbles, would do the trick.
With 29 locations across the globe, KidZania will be doubling down on the non-verbal gestures and other body language that is already featured in its culture, explains Jorge Guisasola, COO. For example, associates at the roleplaying centers greet guests by forming the letter “K” with the index and middle fingers of their right hands and placing it in front of their hearts. As part of the chain’s retraining, associates will also mimic some of the theatrical movements exhibited by KidZania’s costumed characters.
“Eyes communicate a lot,” Guisasola says, “but mouths and half of our faces will be covered, so we will need to compensate with a lot of body language.”
Wood agrees that eyes can express a great deal, and that engaging in eye contact is critical in a post-COVID environment. “Eyes can show a crinkled, sincere smile above and beyond the mask,” she notes, and suggests that attractions train employees by having them stand in front of a mirror with masks on and observe what happens around their eyes when they smile.
Rob Norris, president of Seabreeze Amusement Park in New York, understands that guests value the friendly, smiling employees who greet them on the midway and operate the rides. It will be important, perhaps more than ever, to maintain that dynamic during the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we know if you smile behind the mask, your face lights up,” Norris says.
In addition to smiling and eye contact, Wood also recommends that employees tilt their heads when they engage with guests. “It shows submission, friendliness, and a desire to listen and attend,” the body language expert says. To help disarm and reassure children, whom a masked stranger may put off, she suggests that employees bend their knees and get lower in space when encountering them. While the action would project approachability, Wood cautions that staff members shouldn’t linger in a crouched position, because it might encourage youngsters to think it’s okay to move in for a hug.
Behaviors such as these convey what Wood terms “open body windows.” She says it shows that “I feel safe having these vulnerable parts of my body open to you. I’m not dangerous. It’s safe, and I’m welcoming you into my space.”
One way to help overcome the challenges imposed by wearing masks is to make the masks themselves more attractive. Block Party Social is having fabric masks imprinted with the FEC’s new logo.
Big Thrill Factory, which operates two FECs in Minnesota, is ordering fun masks with facial expressions on them. It is also having signs printed that staff members can hold up for guests to see from a distance. Some might be functional, such as one used in a queue that says, “Next.” Others might have fun visual symbols printed on them such as a thumbs up. Of course, employees could give actual thumbs up or use other non-contact gestures like clapping.
These are some of the simple strategies that Barry Zelickson, owner of Big Thrill Factory, and his team are developing to counter the restrictions that facemasks and social distancing introduce. “Yelling would not make a better environment,” he says with a laugh.
At the large KidZania locations, guests often ask for directions to different locations within the facilities. Instead of verbal explanations delivered from a distance, Guisasola says that associates will use open arms and hands to walk them to the destination. “It will be more gentle and friendly for the visitors,” he says.
Operators know that all of the new procedures as well as the general anxiety caused by the pandemic could be stressful for their front-line workers. And stressed-out workers cannot maintain the fun atmosphere that is the hallmark of attractions. That’s why it is as important for facilities that are reopening to focus on employees as on guests.
“We want to create an environment where our employees still enjoy their jobs,” says Seabreeze’s Norris. “We want them to feel comfortable being here so they can have the same relationship with guests that they had in the past.”