COVID-19 has brought new and unprecedented challenges to the travelling exhibition industry. Unlike attractions, their business depends on travel and installations, as exhibitions move around the world to new institutions.
Blooloop spoke to three leading companies in the travelling exhibitions sector, Imagine Exhibitions, Science North, and Sanders Exhibitions Services, to hear about their strategies for meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to an altered future.
“The travelling exhibitions industry is certainly facing challenges, in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, that we never imagined. However, in many ways, those challenges are not unique to us alone. By the very nature of our business, our clients’ challenges are also our challenges.
“We’re working hand-in-hand with partners who are visitor-serving institutions located all over the world. With each country, each local region, and each organisation, the challenges are unique and varied. They cannot be navigated in isolation—as ironic as that statement is given our world today.”
Imagine Exhibitions produces over 40 unique travelling exhibitions. During May, there should have been over 20 of those shows moving from one place to another. There had been projects planned in Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Belgium, France, China, and Mexico, as well as those in North America.
Moving a travelling exhibition
“Moving a travelling exhibition requires manpower to install and load-out,” says Zaller. “It involves travel for people and for crates, and it requires both locations (where the exhibition is moving from and where it is moving to) to be accessible and open, and to have budget and staff to support these moves.
“Each of our host venues is considering what the next three, six, or ten months look like. They must weigh many complicated and interdependent considerations to determine their next steps.”
“For instance, their local and national safety guidelines, budgetary considerations, the state of their staff and timelines for hiring back up after major furloughs, the spread of the virus in their communities, capacity and pricing models and their ability to update their sanitization and safety procedures.
“Our exhibition is usually just one element within a larger museum or attraction. So, we must rely on the host venue’s expertise and judgement on these factors as they determine how and when they can reopen.
“However, those determinations impact our shows in a way that has a cascading effect. If one venue wants to extend the exhibition through the summer to account for the lost attendance during a spring closure, it usually means that another host venue who had the exhibition booked for the summer must delay their contract until the fall.”
“It is ultimately one giant puzzle that requires close communication between Imagine and each of our partners and clients. One solution cannot fit all organisations, as all of our clients are impacted by the solutions of one other. And, as in everything these days, there is still so much uncertainty around what the future holds.”
Imagine Exhibitions is focusing at present on maintaining open, consistent communication with clients. This allows it to be responsive to the unique considerations that each venue is navigating.
“We at Imagine know that there is a win/win scenario for each situation,” says Zaller. “We are focused, in the short term, on finding that with each of our clients. And when this is all over, the cultural institutions of our world can thrive once again.”
Commenting on the measures the company is taking to keep frontline staff, clients’ staff and visitors safe, he says:
“Host venues are only just starting to plan to re-open. So, we are preparing for our first load-outs and installs in the ‘new normal’.”
“We’re looking to the best practices of the essential businesses who have remained open throughout the crisis for guidance. And we are consistently talking to our peers and colleagues about the ever-changing landscape of the virus. This means we can make sure we are doing everything we can to protect our people.
“Right now, our plans include daily temperature checks and PPE for all frontline staff. We are also looking at conscientious methods of travel. This will reduce the number of people needed to be in one place at a time.”
Travelling exhibitions, COVID-19 and social distancing
Imagine Exhibitions produces over 40 unique travelling exhibitions in venues around the world. They vary widely in content and size. Some tend towards the exclusively visual, while others are more immersive and interactive. Some are fixed in size, and others are modular, designed to suit a wide variety of venues.
On the question of social distancing, Zaller says:
“Each show and potential host venue has its own unique set of considerations as to how to adapt to allow for social distancing. Ultimately, we must work alongside the host venue to assess the specifics of their space and organizational scope. This will help us to determine what measures are necessary.”
“In some cases, this may mean re-evaluating the layout of the exhibition in the space. This is to allow for 6’ distance between natural stopping points and developing on-the-ground stickers to indicate safe distance. In other cases, this could be limiting or adapting the hands-on interactives. Or finding operational solutions to allow for cleaning surfaces that may be touched by visitors.
“The solution may involve putting part or all of the exhibition outside rather than inside, to allow for more comfort and social distance safety for the visitors. Unfortunately, in this business, one size does not fit all. We are talking every day to our clients and colleagues. This allows us to determine the best solutions to the challenges we all face.”
The future of travelling exhibitions
There is much ongoing speculation about what the future of the industry might look like.
“We at Imagine Exhibitions are keeping apprised of those discussions,” says Zaller. “This includes some really interesting thoughts about hands-on interactives, remote installations and load-outs, and more. In many ways, it is too early to tell how exactly this will play out for our industry. But we are excited about the idea of innovation and are ready to adapt as the world continues to change.”
Imagine Exhibitions has been a leader in travelling entertainment for over a decade. It has already seen tremendous change in the sector:
“Right now, we are taking the necessary measures during the crisis to maintain our core team and weather the storm. This means that we can continue to be here for our partners for the long haul.”
Zaller is confident that museums and attractions will live on, and that travelling exhibitions will always benefit those organisations.
“In the wake of past pandemics, museums have emerged as leaders in helping the public to understand. The first-ever blockbuster exhibition was, arguably, the Tuberculosis exhibition at AMNH in 1905. One of the first-ever travelling exhibitions was ‘What about AIDS?’ which toured in the 1980s.”
The importance of travelling exhibitions
Travelling exhibitions are a reliable option for attractions aiming to stay relevant, reach new audiences and reinvigorate the marketplace says Zeller:
“They are a proven method for visitor-serving institutions to stay fresh and relevant, without incurring the capital expenses that are involved with building a new gallery.
“Travelling exhibitions also have a proven track record for reaching new audiences. Surveys report an average of 40% of visitors to Imagine-produced exhibitions as first-time visitors to the host institution. These things will not change. In fact, in a world where cultural organizations are having to rebuild audiences and recoup revenues, travelling exhibitions are a slam–dunk to do so affordably and reliably.”
“In short, though travelling exhibitions may look different in the future, Imagine Exhibitions is looking forward to the opportunity to continue to evolve as storytellers in a world where shared experiences are perhaps more valuable than ever before. We look forward to bringing people together communally—a basic human instinct and need—in a way that is always mindful of guest safety.”
Speaking to Blooloop, Kathryn Huneault, Manager of International Sales Operations at Canadian creator of interactive and immersive attractions, Science North, says:
“Travelling exhibitions are comprised of many components. There are many technical AV elements, immersive theatres, as well as artefacts and specimens that travel all within individual shows. Many of these components may be co-dependant on one another to create a specific experience. It is one thing to have all the pieces set up. But they also need to speak to each other.
“It has been our practice to send a technical specialist to each exhibit install and strike. This is to make sure that all these individual pieces come together as they should. It is much easier to have someone on the ground who is knowledgeable about all of the components. They can best lead the installation team through installations that can take several weeks.”
In addition to the certainty about when the team will be able to travel to locations, Science North has had to rethink how its teams operate.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now about what institutions will do concerning their budgets and travelling exhibits.”
There is, however, meaningful advocacy work around the importance and value of travelling exhibitions, says Huneault. “We are hopeful that the leadership within hosting institutions will continue to find that travelling exhibits are vital drivers of engagement, education and visitor attendance.”
COVID-19 leads to new processes in the world of travelling exhibitions
The COVID 19 crisis has made the implementation of new processes necessary.
“In the short term, we have re-imagined our install and de-install manuals to have as much information as possible. Our exhibitions travel with technical specialists. They manage the work that goes into setting up or dismantling exhibitions directly onsite. “
“While we are unable to travel, we have reached out to organisations who would normally be our competitors. They can work at our clients’ locations, acting as the go-between for their staff and our tech spec.
“We understand that we are incredibly fortunate to be able to do so. This practice would not be possible without the generous participation of like-minded organisations who have jumped up to help. To be a part of a sector that rallies around one another so that we can all come out of this stronger has been incredibly uplifting.”
In terms of enabling guests to maintain social distancing at exhibits, she says: “We are fortunate in that the design of our travelling exhibitions allows them to expand or contract to suit the venue.”
Science North constructs its exhibits in thematic sections. They tell the story of the exhibit consecutively as viewers move from zone to zone. Pieces can be omitted to allow for more space, while still maintaining the integrity of the narrative.
“We can also adapt our floorplans to meet the needs of the inbound location. Whether it is to make more space between components or to create lanes for visitor movement within the show.
“Our staff scientists create evaluation reports of the visitor learning experience while the exhibit is open at our facility. This research can help to inform locations around the length of stay at individual components. It is useful should the hosting location want to create schedules to allow for timed entry into exhibitions.
“Many of these plans will need to happen long before our team would be on-site for set up. Ultimately, we know that we may need to adapt any plans we make now, to meet the distinct needs of leasing locations and their audiences.”
Predicting the long-term impact of COVID-19 on travelling exhibitions
It is, says Huneault, difficult to predict the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on travelling exhibits:
“In the short term, much of what we may have planned is up in the air. We do know that travelling exhibitions allow the leasing museum to update their offerings quickly. And in a manner that is more economical than renovating or developing new material from scratch. Temporary exhibits continue to be a great feature for museums, and I don’t think that will change.”
“I am optimistic that working through this time will force us to think about our work in travelling exhibits differently. By doing so, we will find efficiencies and new best practices that we can carry into the future.”
Sanders Exhibition Services
Adam Sanders, Director of UK-based Sanders Exhibition Services told Blooloop:
“There are several main challenges for Travelling Exhibitions caused by COVID-19. Show maintenance and care, crew safety and operational logistics have all been impacted.
“Those travelling exhibitions which were on the road when the lockdown was first announced have either had to remain in situ until venues re-open, or somehow be repacked without the show owner being present, prior to being sent back to either the storage facility or on to the next venue.
“Due to travel restrictions, those exhibition companies who have hired shows to overseas venues are unable to send their technicians and crews to oversee de-installation of the exhibition.”
“In circumstances where crews have been permitted to travel, further considerations such as PPE, cleaning of the exhibition elements prior to packing, health insurance cover, and quarantine have had to be made to safeguard safety and wellbeing.”
“Some exhibitions also contain fragile artefacts, specimens or collections. Where the exhibition owners can’t oversee the dismantling, special instructions would need to be provided to the host venue. This is to ensure these objects are properly cared for in the absence of the curator or specialist handler being present.”
“The logistics of packing, the condition reporting and the standard of how everything is re-crated is also a sensitive issue. Because, if not done properly, damage could easily occur to the exhibition in transit to the next destination. This could lead to a number of legal and insurance disputes.”
COVID-19 disrupts timelines for travelling exhibitions
With lockdown timelines still a matter of guesswork for most countries, venues planning to host touring exhibitions may be hesitant to accept shipment of the incoming show, as their doors may not be open to the public in time.
“All these factors impact whether venues should delay opening, try to negotiate to extend the display of the exhibition or cancel the show altogether,” says Sanders.
“There is also a myriad of legal and cost issues. Does a venue risk accepting the inbound shipment of a show they may not even be able to display? By doing so they may make themselves liable for the relevant costs. Then there are all the transport delays, additional travel restrictions and new insurance and indemnity conditions. There is a host of complex problems to resolve.”
In terms of instituting new processes, Sandler has also been working with venues to amend their contractual terms, review future scheduling and handle any cancellations:
“As previously mentioned, it is those exhibitions which contain elements that need special care and attention that require instructions on day-to-day care, packing and storage. We can handle these issues by providing instruction manuals to the venues and or video conferencing with key personnel on-site.”
Social distancing and hygiene considerations
Social distancing will also be a factor when venues open to the public:
“The flow and volume of visitors into the exhibition space will need to be reviewed, and further consideration to be given as to how visitors interact with the exhibits.”
In addition to this, the impact will, he says, be long-lasting. “Until a vaccine is found for COVID-19, I think there will be adjustments to the type of exhibits and experiences created and included in travelling exhibitions.
“For example, modifying touch screen and interactive exhibits to include more sensor technology. This will to minimise the spread of any potential germs. Venues will include more security barriers and queue line systems in the exhibition space.
“There may also be an increase in the use of larger digital screens. This will assist the display of text and objects and to enable visitors to see the exhibits and content from a distance. The number of exhibits included in the exhibition may need to be reduced to accommodate social distancing, and more venues may adopt timed ticketing to manage visitor flow.”
COVID-19 could stimulate creative innovation in travelling exhibitions
Sanders feels that while the business model of hosting travelling shows, especially where there is a separate charge to enter, will be impacted if visitor capacity is limited, some of the new measures adopted during these uncertain times will encourage creative innovation which will remain in the long term. He says:
“Travelling exhibitions do have the ability to bring fresh audiences and repeat visitors to venues. And, in some cases, they are a cheaper option than producing an exhibition in-house.
“Given the enormous economic impact that COVID-19 has had around the world, the affordability of travelling exhibitions, and the numerous other benefits they offer mean they will remain a very important aspect for venues to help entice visitors back through their doors, and encourage secondary spending, as well as providing unique experiences for audiences to enjoy.”