As summer turns into fall parents and students alike are usually eager to start the back-to-school routine. Whether it’s the prospect of returning to campus, seeing old friends, or simply the thrill of taking your kids to pick up supplies or moving them into their dorms, these activities typically take over the months of August and September. Though it may not exactly be the situation this year, universities are still opening in case you didn't know. Despite the concerns that come with opening up college campuses, almost 65% of higher learning institutions have opted for a "hybrid model" for the first part of the 2020-2021 academic year. The hybrid model essentially dictates that a majority of classes will be online with a few in-person labs for necessary courses. Many universities are confident that this approach will work. I mean, if classes are online, people can just stay within the safety of their dorms, right? Well, wait, let's zoom out a bit.
College campuses are more of an ecosystem than a classroom. Locking kids in a room with Zoom installed on their laptop won't stop them from getting out to grab food, run errands like laundry or shopping, or meet with advisors. All of which are probably more harmful than sitting in a lecture hall. Sure, universities are in a better position to up their online education systems given the time they have gotten to adapt, but will students seamlessly integrate into the new restrictions colleges might place? But while schools continue along with their fall reopening plans, many students are actually questioning the idea of going back to campus at all. The big issue in mind for new and returning students is whether they should take a gap year instead. Many have started to see that online learning is not encompassing of the college experience. And if you’re not getting the college experience, what’s the point in paying for it?
The pressure is on for universities to enact safety measures and make sure campus activities and processes are cleared for health measures, particularly in on-campus locations that could be in danger of overcrowding, like sporting events, gyms, dining halls, residence halls and libraries. Compounding the difficult choices schools are making about how to safely handle a return to campus, many are already in financially difficult positions due to drops in enrollment and funding cuts. Still, they will have to invest in innovative technologies in order to bring back everything else they offer as much as they can. Canceling all events and crucial campus services would only increase their troubles.
Right now, many of the public and confirmed university plans consist of "a strong adherence to social distancing policies" and a mandatory mask policy. Instead of closing down libraries or in-person services, a supplementary approach to what universities are doing is integrating queue management systems and digital signage to keep students/staff safe and informed. Telling people to stay 6 feet apart is different from setting them up for success. By allowing students to queue into a service remotely, universities can drastically reduce crowding, improve service times to have the least amount of exposure/contact, and keep students feeling safe. Though the change may be small, queuing systems like the FireCast SmartFlow can make a huge difference. I could see this working out well in a lot of crowded places. For example:
We all know that university operations for the next year or so will not be the same as they used to be. For students who return to campus, it’s important to provide a more filtered college experience that doesn’t just feel safer, but actually is safer. Not only can queue management systems provide that, but they are also a long term investment in both safety and convenience. Even after we return back to normal, these systems will continue to improve services and increase student satisfaction. After all, no one likes waiting in line.
Every day, we encounter digital signage in many formats. From billboards and store signs to restaurant menus, screens seem to be everywhere. While we may think we block it all out, digital signage has actually influenced the way we think and act in many ways. Especially with the current lull in small business activity, digital signage can be an innovative and high-value investment for any business or public space. Here are 3 ways it can influence customer behavior.
To start off, visual aesthetics appeal to human emotions. That being said, adding digital signs at the main point-of decision can make the most impact on the consumer because it allows you to showcase specific information at different points of the consumer journey.
For example, signs near the entrance featuring ongoing sales and new items will encourage people to come in and visit, while signs near the checkout showing limited deals may remind people of a savings opportunity to add to their cart. Having employees mention your promotions may make some people uncomfortable while others simply zone out. Sometimes, a catchy LED screen is all that’s needed.
A huge benefit of digital signage is how it aids the consumer's buying decisions. By offering things like digital price tags or extra product information kiosks, you are able to provide comparison power to the buyer and increase the efficiency of their decisions. With digital systems, you can also tweak your signage to automatically change based on things like foot traffic and different times of the day. Additional features may allow you to run analytics on your content, hone in on your customer psychology, and use digital signage to promote action.
In a world full of tech, digital signage offers a streamlined experience in out-of-home spaces and can entertain consumers. In the current COVID situation, many retail stores are experiencing long wait times and dealing with impatient crowds. Digital signage can be used to attract and engage views through dynamic and relevant content. Retailers can use screens to remind customers to follow safety practices, display wait times or store maps, and even play funny videos to pass the time.
At the end of the day, everyone is on their phones the first chance they get. By having large interactive screens, you can offer a high degree of satisfaction and ease from the moment customers enter the store.
Lastly, digital signage can showcase stories and build brand equity. By leveraging innovative products like interactive kiosks and digital signs, brands can empathize with their customer base and appeal to human emotion. The psychological and emotional component behind digital signage can boost any brand's marketing development strategies as well as their customer retention. Placing engaging content around the store can help reduce a shopper's frustration or boredom while also showing off your brand news and personality.
Based on the research and points discussed above, digital signage is an underutilized marketing method that will only grow to become more valuable over time. Despite what people may believe, digital signage systems are not wildly complicated or expensive to put in place. Especially with all the benefits, digital signage can prove advantageous to businesses at an affordable price point.
Just as things started to look up and restrictions were slowed, the past few weeks have seen a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases all across the country, with states like California and Florida reporting record-setting numbers of new cases. It was not a surprise that the minute restrictions were slightly lifted, an increase in cases followed: after nearly five months of quarantine, social distancing, and mask-wearing, the general public has become fatigued.
Although many state and local governments are urgently trying to get things back under control, it’s safe to say we’ll all have to endure some level of restrictions a bit longer. Despite this "new normal", advancements in innovation and technology have continued to develop rapidly.
When the outbreak first started, technology came to the rescue as Facebook-generated maps helped set up testing zones in highly-populated places while other tech giants worked to eliminate misinformation about the virus. Crowded hospitals prompted growth in the telehealth industry and offered virtual primary care to people all over the world. AI health apps and chatbots were also used to screen for symptoms and diagnose from afar. Wherever we could prevent unnecessary appointments, we did. More recently, new technology has also been helpful for tracking and predicting the spread of the virus, which has in turn helped many cities and states enact measures before it was too late.
For many, one of the biggest hurdles was the transition to remote work. As people were ushered into their homes all over the country, companies had to work around the clock to provide employees with equipment and collaboration services, and shore up any security and bandwidth shortcomings. Not to mention, the uptake in online meetings required learning new platforms, which in turn demanded more training for employees in every vertical market. Companies like Google even made their meeting platform completely free, providing easier options for groups who might lack the budget or tech expertise to put a more complex package into use. Months later these same tools are also being used to call friends and family to maintain relations and make quarantining a bit easier.
Similarly, all students from Kindergarten to Higher Education switched from open campuses to Zoom lecture halls. Students are now learning and attending classes completely online. As a result, we saw updates to user-interface allowing for even younger students to understand the programs better. Hand-raising, breakout rooms, and more chances to collaborate allow students to work together as if they never left.
Online and offline shopping have both been tailored for the safety of customers. Virtual queuing services like FireCast SmartFlow allow all types of brick-and-mortar businesses to practice social distancing measures and improve customer service. By enabling customers to reserve their spots online, the queuing system is used to control customer traffic flows and streamline real-world visits to restaurants, shops, and other places where they might have had to stand around in a crowd. Likewise, changes in eCommerce and online shopping have forced improvements in packaging, shipments, and financial transactions.
Quarantine has left many with more free time to spend online. With in-person events canceled for the next year, fitness classes, virtual concerts, and worldwide conferences have taken the stage. Dozens of streaming services now compete for people’s attention, prompting more TV shows to be added and more online activities to take place. Entertainment in times of quarantine has even grown to cover museums and gaming.
COVID-19 has tested businesses small and large on their digital readiness to see how well they can support the needs of their customers and employees. Moving forward, businesses will need to stay current on adopting technology trends to outperform the competition. And with all the tech resources that consumers now have access to, there is indeed hope that people can continue observing healthy practices until virus activity finally abates, via the development of a vaccine or otherwise.
One of the unspoken truths about life in a vacation destination is that there's always a bit of (hopefully) unspoken tension between residents and visitors. I grew up in a beach town in New York and now live in a similar, albeit hotter, one in Florida, and it's always been the same. The local economy depends on tourists streaming in, spending money, and then heading out to make room for the next batch, and many residents either have jobs in the tourist economy directly or benefit from its existence (Florida lacks a state income tax because enough is made from sales and various tourism taxes, for example). For that benefit though, residents have to deal with a bunch of tourist nonsense, from heavy traffic and long waits at restaurants to constant noise and hopefully-only-occasional drunken brawls. The thing is, both the pros and cons of this lifestyle evaporate completely when the tourists go away. Like, for example, when you're in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that has killed lots of people.
If I had to guess, maybe the easiest place to observe this phenomenon is Orlando, FL, which is a few hours north of me and of course home to numerous theme parks, kitsch shops, and other tourist traps. Over the last few months, residents have taken to nature trails, bike paths, and other outdoor activity spots (that weren't closed) in record numbers, enjoying peace and quiet that probably hasn't existed there since the mouse set up shop decades ago. But on the other hand, hundreds of thousands of those same people were furloughed or laid off as titans of destination entertainment like Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Disney shut down to wait things out. Since then, some have reopened, testing the waters by asking staff and guests to wear masks and follow new queuing and hygiene procedures. But Walt Disney World, often used as a bellwether for the entire tourism industry, waited. Until this last weekend. It's easy to understand why the house of mouse is being so closely watched right now. Over twenty million visitors passed through the Magic Kingdom alone in 2019, and to many, the park name is synonymous with long waits in tightly packed -- if ever so delightfully themed -- lines. And having long ago watched my toddler son lick a monorail window (and just generally knowing how gross little kids can be), I have to believe that keeping the parks clean was extremely tough even before the pandemic.
So on the one hand, reopening seems like it could be potentially disastrous. But on the other hand... this is Disney we're talking about, and they’re one of the best-executing companies in the world. They've undoubtedly introduced dozens or hundreds of changes and improvements in preparation for reopening, from obvious ones like face shields on cast members and mask requirements for guests to hidden changes in cleaning schedules and guest wrangling traffic programs. You'd have to imagine that they’ll also lean more heavily on self-service and queuing technologies that they’d already started to put in place before the pandemic, and now look absolutely brilliant in light of it. On the self-service side, for the last two or so years, the MyDisneyExperience mobile app has let guests order food for pickup at a specific time, letting them bypass long lines at counter service restaurants. This is great for two reasons: first, it means that guests savvy enough to use the app (and who are happy with the selection of participating restaurants) can bypass physical queues during busy parts of the day. Second, as a follow on, it means that said queues will be shorter for guests who do choose to physically wait in line. That’s good news at any time, but especially during a pandemic.
The other tech that looks especially prescient right now is their FastPass+ system, which basically lets guests make reservations at certain attractions so they can skip the line. They then use RFID-enabled wristbands to “check-in” to a reserved attraction during a specified window and can walk right on (more or less). While the system is far from perfect, it does give guests some visibility into how many top-tier attractions they’ll have to wait to do, and it also helps the park spread guests around more effectively by incentivizing them to visit less-popular attractions. This system currently provides reservation access to most (though not all) attractions, including scoring prime seats for some shows and fireworks, and it’s easy to see how they might continue to expand it (with the help of some Disney supercomputers and probably near-sentient AI) to the point where you could schedule your entire visit and never have to stand in a line again.
Here’s the ironic thing, though. As of Saturday’s reopening, mobile ordering is still allowed but FastPass+ has been disabled. For the time being, it seems the Walt Disney Company is more comfortable relying on extra training for cast members and enhanced spacing in physical queues than a more tech-enabled solution. And while it’s a little counterintuitive, I can think of a couple of reasons why this might be. For one, using the Disney app is complicated, and making good use of your reservation slots is even more so. While something like 85% of Americans have a smartphone, that number is lower when you include international visitors. And even those who have one often don’t know how to do anything more complicated than taking a photo or sending a text.
Another possibility is that the Disney software team is actually working in the background to make the app smarter, and management simply decided that they didn’t want to train people to use the existing system only to switch them to something else in a few months or a year. It’s easy to move a few stanchions and change some markings on the ground if things aren’t working. Getting park-goers to read an app’s changelog after a major update is a different story...
So this story isn’t over, and like everyone else in the world, the folks at Disney will have to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to keeping guests safe in a post-COVID world. My money is on cracking the code though, considering the theme park business is worth something like $20 billion a year to Mickey and his pals. But whether they continue with a lower-tech approach, go all-in on MouseNet AI that controls every park guest’s experience down to the last detail, or settle somewhere in between still remains to be seen.