Local venues adapt to life during the coronavirus crisis

April 13, 2020

It’s #MacaqueMonday at the Great Plains Zoo, which means the Japanese macaques are in for a treat.

With the world watching — or at least the world plugged into the Sioux Falls zoo’s Facebook page — one of the monkeys uses a finger to sample smears of peanut butter on a window spelling out “macaque.”

From there, it’s on to grapes and bananas, as masked workers deliver the treats as an enrichment activity for the macaques, and the whole thing is shared with visitors who aren’t able to come in the zoo itself.

“A big focus for us is that we want to be continuing to engage with our community,” said Suzie O’Meara Hernes, the newly announced interim CEO of the Great Plains Zoo.

“So we shifted to bringing the zoo to you. And that’s really where our focus has been. We … don’t want to (just) close and not make it available. And there’s so many people that are having to learn virtually. But it really is finding new and innovative ways to connect with people.”

Across Sioux Falls, entertainment venues are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. With public health recommendations limiting the number of people gathering together, these venues have had to adapt to continue making an impact in the Sioux Falls community.

A common theme emerges when talking to the leaders of these venues — the power of digital media to convey their businesses’ respective messages and brands in different ways than ever before.

Performing arts on hold

When Washington Pavilion president and CEO Darrin Smith saw the city of Sioux Falls starting to take action because of the coronavirus, he said he and his team had a feeling about what it meant for them.

“We saw the writing on the wall of where this thing was going,” Smith said. “And so we started looking out even further ahead and were pretty proactive with just making the decision to close our building to the public.”

After closing the Pavilion to the public on March 15, Smith and his staff quickly started working on the logistics of transitioning as many staff  as possible to remote work. Facilities and box office staff still work regularly in the building while practicing social distancing measures. The rest of the staff have access to the building but are highly encouraged to work from home. 

The Pavilion staff also have been working on rescheduling events through May. This has proved to be a difficult feat, as Smith said most Pavilion events are booked anywhere from nine to 15 months out. 

“We already had a lot of next year scheduled,” Smith said. “Now you’ve got to take all these shows and try and work them into not only our schedule, but the folks coming here to perform. They aren’t only performing once in Sioux Falls and then retiring. They are in a city the night before, and they’ll be in another city tomorrow night after they leave. So it’s really a nightmare to try and pull that off, but we’re making good progress there.”

To continue engagement with the local community, the Pavilion has rolled out “Pavilion at Home” — a series of videos bringing content such as science experiments and behind-the-scenes tours. 

There are virtual tours of the Visual Arts Center:

There are accessible art lessons, like this example of how to turn junk mail into a project:

And there are virtual science demonstrations:

To see all the online resources, click here.

The Pavilion also is planning to add boxed lunch service from Leonardo’s Cafe.

Levitt faces decisions

Levitt at the Falls faces similar challenges to the Pavilion, although with a bit more uncertainty. Since its venue is owned by the city, a decision has yet to be made on whether its summer concert series will move forward. No matter what happens, executive director Nancy Halverson said her team is prepared to adapt.

Concerts were scheduled to start in May.

“We’re also an organization whose business model is really largely driven by philanthropy. So we’re not as tied to ticket sales like  some of the other venues in town,” she said. “So as we think about the what ifs, what we want to do is look forward and say, ‘All right, if we can’t come together on the lawn because it’s not healthy … can we look at some digital ways?’ There are lots and lots of musicians now pivoting to digital. So we’re exploring what that could look like for us.”

Unique challenges for animal care

Venues that revolve around animals still need workers there to care for them. That can be challenging with the requirements of social distancing.

 To maintain the health of its workers and animals, the Butterfly House and Aquarium has implemented a staggered schedule for its six full-time animal care employees. Only three are in the building each day to care for the animals, reducing the risk for mass spreading of the virus. 

“If half of our team would get sick, the other half wouldn’t be sick — if it all worked out according to plan — and then we’d still have staff to cover,” CEO Audrey Willard said.

While they care for the animals, the staff also have been recording videos of their exhibits that are then posted on social media — some with a more educational spin, while others seek to provide stress relief for adults.

The Butterfly House also is encouraging supporters to “adopt an animal” to help support its ongoing care.

Although the Butterfly House doesn’t have to worry about human-animal transmission of the virus, as staff only only work with fish and insects, this is a concern for the Great Plains Zoo.

O’Meara Hernes said the zoo staff is working a staggered schedule and practicing social distancing to ensure there is no danger to animals or humans. 

“Every day, the animals are getting the same exceptional care that we would even if we were open,” O’Meara Hernes said.

O’Meara Hernes began her position last week, accepting unusual circumstances starting a leadership role. The interim CEO said that while she wishes the zoo could be open as she starts her work there, she is excited to tackle the situation head-on and take this time to learn the ins and outs of the business.

“It’s disappointing for me that we’re not open because we’re such a great venue for the city, and now that our weather is getting warm, people want to get out,” she said.

Staff also have been posting videos introducing animals to the public.

“We can’t be open to the public but certainly understand one of our highest priorities is the safety of our animals, our visitors and our staff. … It does give me a unique opportunity to have a little bit of a filler time to understand – understand the business, understand the zoo, understand what’s been happening with the staff, our financials, all of the aspects that go into running the business.”

A lasting impact

For now, like many other businesses in Sioux Falls, these venues are preparing to operate under these circumstances for the long haul until life goes back to normal. However, some feel like that normal will just be relative, that some aspects of daily life and of their industry may change for good.

“First and foremost, of course, it’s going to affect us financially for a period of time, just like it will affect every other business,” Smith said.

“I believe when we are back open, I believe life has changed now, in some ways that will be temporary and in other ways that will probably be permanent, as far as the focus on sanitation and germ-killing chemicals located throughout the building. We don’t know yet when we’ll be allowed to, or when it will be safe again to, have large events.”

But these leaders also are taking this time as an opportunity to brainstorm ideas that improve their organizations in the long run and make changes that may last even past the coronavirus era. 

“I mean, this has been a time of, as strange as it sounds, professional growth,” Halverson said. “Because one thing I think we all can do right now is take some of this odd time that we have in our day and learn about what others are doing and explore some of these other platforms that we just … haven’t done before.”

The lessons learned in crisis could benefit their organizations long term, they said. 

“I think, long term, it’s actually going to make us better,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to make a lot of businesses better. Because first of all, it’s giving everyone a taste of what can happen. So you better have your financial house in order.”

But until life becomes more stable, these venues are all leaning on community support to help. They said there are multiple ways for generous patrons to help their respective businesses, whether it’s buying merchandise from the Butterfly House’s Shopify page or making a donation to the Pavilion.

All of these leaders shared the appreciation for the support they’ve felt from the Sioux Falls community over the past few weeks and said they were grateful to be weathering this storm in such an interconnected community.

“It’s been incredible,” O’Meara Hernes said. “We’ve been really thrilled to see the engagement on our social media and from the city, and the support of our work. We are very, very connected with the city … and we’re honored to be in Sioux Falls.”

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Local venues adapt to life during the coronavirus crisis

Have a virtual animal encounter, tour a museum and do an art project: Venues that can’t allow admission are finding ways to offer an experience anyway.

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