Experiential Museums Find New Ways to Sell Fun Even With Covid Restrictions

Experiential museums—designed to provide visitors with interactive experiences—faced a big problem as coronavirus restrictions were eased: How to boost sanitization measures while demonstrating to visitors that these high-touch spaces were still safe to enter and enjoy.

Many operators of such spaces say they have been able to retain their interactive, immersive identities to a surprising degree as they and their guests navigate the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

The masks now required for visitors six years old and up might have made it harder to pick up the scents of the Chromaroma exhibit, for example, at the Houston outpost of the Color Factory, an art exhibit dedicated to color. So the museum amplified the scents.

The Color Factory has introduced social distancing rules in the space.


Color Factory LLC

The Color Factory’s ball pits in Houston and New York now require everyone over a certain age to wear a mask, and forbid guests from submerging their heads under the balls. Despite this, the exhibit is still up and running.

“We’re proud that we’ve really been able to maintain the experience in both cities, without making significant changes,” said Tina Malhotra, chief experience officer at the Color Factory LLC, which reopened in Houston on Aug. 5 and in New York City on Oct. 1, after closing earlier in the pandemic.

Experiential museums try to draw crowds with high-touch, interactive exhibits and settings designed to stand out on guests’ social-media feeds. But the approach seemed endangered as the new, highly contagious virus swept the globe this year.

Even major institutions with a long tradition of telling guests not to touch have struggled, first with shutdowns and then with limits capping the number of visitors they can welcome. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, cut hundreds of jobs this year and expects to lose $150 million in revenue.

The market for interactive venues such as the Color Factory already was getting saturated, said Brendan Gahan, chief social officer and partner at advertising agency Mekanism Inc. And even as they reopen, people may less inclined to post fun photos on social media because they don’t want to risk appearing insensitive to the crisis, he said.

“It’s likely they’re going to face an uphill battle,” Mr. Gahan said. “It’s going to depend on how big of a priority you place on your social media and how much you’re worried about Covid.”

The Sloomoo Institute LLC, a museum dedicated to the popular children’s toy slime, previously had visitors gather around a communal tub of slime to explore its various textures and smells. Now it gives guests a show about the slime, with staff members explaining the different types and wafting the smells over to socially distanced visitors.

The Museum of Ice Cream in New York, owned by Figure8 Inc., no longer lets people enter its pool of biodegradable plastic sprinkles, but they can walk on top of it via stationary objects it calls “lily pads.”

A new “treasure map” that guests can follow to earn an ice cream-based treat offers three possible routes to the prize, distinguished on the map by the amount of interaction with staff or other guests they require. One level, dubbed Rocky Road, doesn’t require guests to speak with staff. In other levels, guests have to talk to staff members or other visitors to solve a riddle.

The museums said visitors are coming back—enough, at least, to often hit the reduced capacity limits during their decreased hours of operation.

Operating at 25% capacity and open Friday through Sunday and on weekday holidays, Sloomoo has been selling out every weekend, the company said. So has the Museum of Ice Cream’s New York location, which is running at 20% capacity, it said; its San Francisco location is only open for private events.

The Color Factory is operating at 50% capacity in Houston and at 25% in New York, without selling out, the company said.

Sloomoo and the Color Factory were profitable before the pandemic, although Museum of Ice Cream’s New York location wasn’t, according to the companies. Only Sloomoo has seen a return to profitability since reopening.

But some revenue was better than none, executives calculated. Sloomoo and the Museum of Ice Cream have tried to bolster their operations with virtual events, classes and new investments in e-commerce.

Sloomoo also wanted to offer people something to look forward to again, despite the limitations, said Karen Robinovitz, co-founder of the company.

“We’re all dying for something happy again, even if it’s just a small grain of it,” Ms. Robinovitz said.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]

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