During the past year, attractions have kept in touch with their guests and inspired potential visitors by developing online activities. Digital programming can engage guests at home and serve as the catalyst for them to plan a future in-person visit. Even as attractions reopen, some have continued their pandemic initiatives and innovations, finding interacting in the digital space is a good marketing move.
Joe Veneto, chief experience officer at Veneto Collaboratory, a consulting firm serving tourism and hospitality businesses, says virtual programming should continue as an inclusive component of the guest experience and organizers should work with local visitor bureaus.
“Attractions doing virtual need to link themselves with their local destination marketing organization (DMO) for extra fire and marketing power,” he says.
By using collaboration and providing guests with an activity to enjoy following an in-person visit, attractions and regional destinations can stay front of mind with guests, potentially leading to word-of-mouth advertising and return visits in the future.
Funworld shares successful programs and insights from museums, theme parks, zoos, and aquariums on how they keep guests coming back virtually and in-person.
International Spy Museum
International Spy Museum guests can sleuth online, discover many operations, and even customize their virtual visit. When the museum temporarily closed in December before reopening in January, visitors could still experience the attraction virtually through its social media channels; listen to SpyCast, the historian/curator’s weekly podcast; download educational resources for parents, teachers, and learners of all ages; and discover customizable virtual event offerings.
“Previously [before the pandemic], we offered virtual workshops to classes across the country and around the world,” says Aliza Bran, media relations manager. “Now we can offer public programming and private events virtually, and we’ve increased our virtual offerings tremendously.”
Fans of the International Spy Museum can book virtual events, ranging from birthday parties and educational workshops to cocktail hours and speaker events. From the comfort and security of their own “safe houses,” corporate groups can participate in private team-bonding events, including virtual spy trivia and spy challenge experiences.
Guests who visit the museum receive an Undercover Mission badge, cover name, and cover details, which they use throughout the museum to participate in Undercover Mission, collecting scores and intel. Back home, visitors can enter their badge number on the International Spy Museum’s website for a Full Mission Debrief, revealing their scores, photos, and skill medallions. Other opportunities to continue the museum experience at home and gain more covert knowledge include participating in a Virtual Spy Chat with Chris Costa, executive director of the museum and a former intelligence officer, and the Covert Couch Challenge for families with children ages 7 to 12. This challenge brings the museum into homes in a hands-on way through a one-hour interactive mission led by the museum’s professional staff. Bran promises more events to come and says since last March, the museum’s programs have reached every state and more than 60 countries.
Vaughn, Ontario, Canada
In the summer of 2020, Canada’s Wonderland theme park remained shuttered in accordance with local guidelines, but that didn’t stop the park north of Toronto from giving its fans some free rides. Adrenaline junkies could dip and climb on the virtual “Yukon Striker” or scream from the comfort of their homes while virtually reaching speeds of 148 kph on the popular “Leviathan” coaster.
“We had our POV (point of view) and 360-degree videos before COVID-19, but it wasn’t until 2020 that we thought about marketing them differently,” says Grace Peacock, director of communications at Canada’s Wonderland. “With people stuck at home and the park closed, we saw an opportunity to bring these rides into people’s living rooms so they could have some amusement park fun.”
Canada’s Wonderland also brought its classic fireworks extravaganza on screen through high-quality videos of previous shows.
To complement a virtual coaster ride, Peacock suggests logging on to the Peanuts Online Learning Center to download educational worksheets, writing prompts, and activities to design and build miniature roller coasters or amusement parks.
Those yearning to re-create the fun had at the amusement park are also encouraged to make their own videos or take photos of experiencing Canada’s Wonderland’s virtual rides at home and then sharing them on social media.
The park also stayed top of mind serving as the temporary home for Toronto’s 2020 Santa Claus Parade. When planners feared a public parade would result in crowds amassing, they worked with Canada’s Wonderland to move the parade inside the closed park. The collaboration led to a two-hour primetime broadcast seen on CTV and put Canada’s Wonderland in the national spotlight in a positive way.
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Who can resist cute animal videos? Memphis Zoo’s Virtual Zoo Programs allow guests the opportunity to study animal behavior or adaptations by viewing specific animals or going behind the scenes and meeting animal ambassadors, which doesn’t happen with a live visit.
“Before COVID-19, our focus was more on bringing our education class audiences to the zoo and then guest engagement inside the zoo,” says Erika Davis, education specialist and school programs coordinator. “Since COVID-19, our entire way of thinking and producing zoo programming has changed. We have been pushed out of our comfort zone and into new and exciting territory by going virtual.”
Now the Memphis Zoo reaches a wider audience than ever before. The pandemic also spurred some creativity with the zoo’s brand-new Ed-ZOO-Crates. Recommended as souvenirs or gifts, crates are full of themed activities, supplies, and instructions for interactive fun. A different theme is offered each month, and each Ed-ZOO-Crate purchase includes an interactive livestream with zoo staff so recipients can dive deeper into what’s in their boxes. Supplemental videos can be found on the Memphis Zoo Education YouTube Channel so the adventure continues.
Seattle, Washington, United States
Laura Austin, communications specialist at the Seattle Aquarium, recommends guests dive into the aquarium’s reopening video before drifting on down to the Seattle waterfront for a live visit.
Potential guests can tune in to Facebook Live to see what the resident divers are doing. To learn more about the aquarium’s inhabitants before or after a visit, guests are encouraged to visit the Seattle Aquarium website and catch livestreams from the web cams of harbor seals and sea otters.
In November, the Seattle Aquarium launched Sea Color, an ocean-themed coloring app with proceeds supporting the aquarium’s mission, developed in collaboration with Tangible, an art and design studio based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The free-to-download iPhone and Android app is an interactive, digital coloring book for tablets and phones inspired by the Seattle Aquarium. Users receive a free otter-themed coloring page and can download additional coloring page bundles starting at $2.99. Proceeds from coloring bundles benefit the nonprofit aquarium.
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Videos, quizzes, blogs, biographies, and artifacts online give visitors a sneak peek at this National Historic Landmark.
“We had some virtual offerings pre-COVID-19, but the closure of our site due to the pandemic allowed us the opportunity to create and share even more,” explains Ann Dee Jones, vice president of marketing and communications at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.
Jackson’s Library Card, an initiative launched by the education staff, connects with book lovers around the globe, says Jones. Books for the virtual book club are chosen quarterly and range from historical to modern, fiction or nonfiction. The first read for the club was “Oliver Twist,” which was actually in Andrew Jackson’s library. Readers ages 16 and older are invited to join Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage for the monthly virtual book club, which is held on Zoom for an hour-long meet-up with fellow readers on the first Tuesday of the month.
“We hope our offerings give a better glimpse into the importance of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, not only as a presidential home, but also as a window into 19th century America,” she says.
Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes about small-business issues.