Lessons From Lockdown

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As designers and developers of location-based experiences, we have the privilege and opportunity to connect with our audiences in unique and unexpected ways. Whether we have crafted a museum exhibit, a Family Entertainment Center, or the most ambitious theme park ever created, our greatest reward is the memories our guests share, forging lifelong bonds and personal connections to our work and each other. Ironically, in normal times, we tirelessly toil through the days and sleepless nights, fussing and fretting over every design detail and budget hiccup, not stopping until the hammering is done and the ribbon is cut. And then it’s on to the next. We are kept so busy crafting the next big thing that we often fail to capture the smaller moments ourselves.

 

Obviously, these are far from normal times. 2020 has been the Black Swan of Black Swans. In the beforedays, our industry flourished in times of crisis as people sought a bit of escapism from the troubling world, but this global pandemic has been a gut-punch to all of our preconceived notions. A year ago, it was inconceivable to think that our homes would become our fortresses of solitude. That cinemas, museums, attractions, and theme parks (never mind bars and restaurants) would shut their doors for a single day, let alone months. We all had a rather vacant stare as it dawned on us that our gates would shutter, our offices would close, our projects would pause, our lives would go on hold. The whole world had suddenly and forever changed.

And yet, we’ve adapted and adopted new tools and ways of working. So much has already been written about the surprising productivity of working from home (with or without pants), the comparatively painless transition to online conferencing and collaboration, the explosion of streaming entertainment, social media platforms, and a creator economy in which anyone and everyone, anywhere in the world can find a voice, a following, and an audience all their own.  

We push forward and speculate, plot, and blogpost about how social-distancing and a contactless world will alter our approach to visitor engagements. We closely follow the theme parks that have begun to reopen to see how new safety guidelines affect attendance and guest satisfaction. We share the challenges and successes of museum exhibits and theatrical performances as they reinvent themselves in the digital realm, and debate what elements might outlast this pandemic to shape experiences to come.  We quietly delight in the renaissance of the drive-in, which has become the venue not only for movies, but for concerts, weddings, graduations, worship services, election rallies, and victory celebrations.  Our cars have become their own semi-autonomous, trackless ride vehicles that lead us through the nearest Halloween haunt or holiday lights spectacle.  We follow the trends of an audience whose entertainment options have been severely limited resulting in the soaring popularity of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and even golf, and we consider how all of this will play out in our future projects.  

When we shift the topic of our lockdown experiences away from work-related things, however, the conversation takes a revealing turn. When asked what happy surprises our suddenly homebound existences have revealed after these many months, our answers are notably intimate and personal.  Many of us take great satisfaction in finally checking off items on our much ignored to do lists, ignored not so much because we’ve been busy, but because we had so many ready distractions to blame for our procrastination. My colleagues have fixed that leaky faucet, renovated a room, completed unfinished writing projects, honed new skills, created the artwork, crafted instruments, miniatures, sweaters, scarves, and quilts. Others have tended their gardens, harvested their crops, and prepared their meals… and spent time with each other. 

And that’s the heart of the matter. In spite of the challenges of this “lockdown lifestyle,” it has ironically drawn us closer to one another.  We’ve bonded with our pets, who seem deeply puzzled as to why we’re around so much these days. Through Zoom calls, we’ve reconnected with friends and family, separated by time and space. We’ve treasured walks and bike rides with our partners, siblings, children, and grandchildren. We’ve watched the drama of nature unfold outside our windows, gazing at the night sky, or rooting for birds as they battle for territory in the trees. This Halloween, my block arranged a special costume parade for the little ones on the street followed by a socially distanced outdoor movie on the driveway. Neighbors who opted into the festivities gathered on their lawns, and made it one of the most memorable community bonding events we’ve ever had, and a tradition we hope to repeat next year. 

The almost unbearable challenge of distance learning has given us a renewed appreciation for educators, but also the gift of precious time with our sons and daughters. My colleague Cynthia and I each have a teen-aged son named Sean, both of whom are seniors in high school. Thankfully, they both remain active and engaged, but it crushes us to think they are missing social events, dances, live shows, sports, and, sigh… graduation ceremonies, all milestones in this grand finale to their schooldays. The silver lining is that we get to share this ever-dwindling time together as they prepare to fly, cooking meals together, playing foosball, ping-pong, board games, guiding them through homework, rehearsing the virtual musical in the next room, streaming Netflix on the same couch at the same time. My Sean cannot play organized ice hockey with his team, so he has to settle for beer league pick-up games with friends and, ugh, his dad.  I make sure I tell him over and over how much I treasure these moments, and I am confident that one day, he will too.

It seems that even the gee-wizards of location-based entertainment, the purveyors of pomp and pyrotechnics, the first adopters, first-in-liners, and fiercest critics of the latest and greatest immersive any-and-everything are living through a crash course in the power of moments. 

So as this crisis fades and our cultural ship begins to right itself and lists forward into the new sea of reality, as we begin to rev our engines once again to plan, plot, draw and design the next big, immersive, 5D, multimedia, autonomous, AR, VR, AI, gob-smacking glockenspiel of awesomeness, let’s not forget the power of the small moment. Let’s not forget that the greatest reward for all our efforts is connecting with our guests; creating personal moments of awe, wonder, joy, revelation, or familial intimacy. We are gifted with the opportunity to create memories that transcend the commonplace. These “emotional souvenirs” are treasures that our guests will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, as we emerge from this lunacy of lockdowns, we can also remember to savor those small moments in our own lives, too.