“I could open Park today, and it would be at capacity. Every day, people call me asking when I’m going to open back up.” That’s what Marc Barnes, owner of the Park at Fourteenth, had to say about the current climate of the nightlife economy in the midst of the Greater Washington DC area’s social restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16th, DC Government closed restaurants and bars like Park at Fourteenth in an effort to curb the coronavirus spread, and even then, socialites wanted nothing other than to pour up and party. “On the day the city said we had to shut down, I had a group of med students ask me to stay open so they could celebrate their graduation,” he said. He laughed as he told me how they became aggressive after he explained the situation to them. “They left my club to go to another one that night.” Even through social restrictions and shutdowns, Marc believes the pandemic will do little to change people’s appetites for socializing, hanging out with friends and enjoying the amenities of the District’s premiere nightlife venue and standard for safety, cleanliness and quality of service.
Candace Carrington, a DC creative and socialite, told me she was at a DC bar the evening before restaurants and bars were shut down. “Even then, there were about five or six people at the bar,” she said. “That was the first time I felt like, ‘oh shit, this is for real’.” Candace experienced a rapid evolution of her awareness within social settings, a phenomena that came through loud and clear in the output of various surveys I’ve conducted over the past month to understand what people felt social life — like having drinks at a bar or attending a party — could look like after social restrictions are lifted. The demand for the Park at Fourteenth to reopen that Marc has experienced strongly contrasts the sentiments respondents voiced through their feedback, sentiments that I’ll share with you in the next 8 to 10 minutes of reading.
Our public consciousness is changing
Understanding how to best encourage empathy in human experiences is one of my core motivations. It has driven me to refocus my professional career, leaving behind the world of consumer-driven brand marketing to enter the realm of design thinking. Somewhere along my journey I realized that as much as I enjoyed figuring out how to make products and services resonate with people, making products and services better brought me more fulfillment. My consciousness and self-awareness had shifted and evolved rapidly as I became more mindful of how the products and services I was responsible for as a marketer impacted the people who used them.
COVID-19 is making a similar shift in our public consciousness, a rapid evolution that’s making us more self-aware and mindful of each other as we hope to end the pandemic and return to life as we knew it before social restrictions were put in place. For all the hope we have, many of us may already be accepting a truth that’s becoming more clear as we progress through the pandemic: we can never go back.
In response to my survey, “What’s the move?”, 75% of 32 respondents said they did not think social life after COVID-19 restrictions would be the same (as of 4/20/2020). I assumed they’d have a harsh vision of our social future, and some respondents did, saying “they would be more distrustful of going out in larger groups for a while”.
Shakari “Trakgirl” Boles is a music producer and bicoastal socialite who frequents music festivals both as a performer and attendee. She says that while her consciousness hasn’t shifted, her self-awareness has. I asked her what she felt about the skepticism my research exposed for large crowds. She said, “I’ll definitely avoid large crowds and focus on more intimate events.
Some respondents shared a more optimistic vision for the future, one where “people will be more kind and responsive to their loved ones, friends, and strangers, cognizant of their behavior or habits in public.” In our social interactions after COVID-19, we may be more self-aware of how our behavior could protect us or put us at risk for infection, and that could mean we’ll need more safety assurances from venue owners like Marc Barnes in order to party and pop bottles like we like we did just two months ago.
Does my ticket come with masks and gloves?
I told Marc that respondents to my surveys had asked for social suppliers and venue owners like himself to provide assurances for the safety in life after COVID-19. Some asked for social suppliers like Marc to hand out masks and gloves. Others asked for more limited capacity restrictions and frequent cleaning. What did he have to say about all this?
“That’s bullshit. People have never cared about their health and safety until (supposedly) now. They patronized venues with poor health safety practices before and they will continue to do so as soon as they have the green light. As far as providing PPE; we will provide our staff with the proper supplies but patrons will be responsible for their own supplies, as they would anywhere else. It would be cost-prohibitive for restaurants to provide this service. We have always put safety, cleanliness and quality above anything else at The Park. We’ve been the standard for cleanliness and service in the District. As a concerned businessman, I know that, even as I try to protect people, they still may go somewhere else, to a venue where the owner doesn’t care about their safety the way that I do.”
In response to my “Social Life After COVID-19” survey, 76% of 42 survey respondents said they believed they’d need more assurances of their safety from event planners and venues after COVID-19 social restrictions were lifted (as of 4/20/2020). Marc believed there was some validity to what they had to say, but that ultimately, social consumers would put partying with others above any new requirements they say they would need for safety in life after COVID-19. “People will say anything in a research environment, but if I opened my club today, it’d be filled to capacity because people want to party,” he said.
Marc believes that shifts in public consciousness around social interactions may not play out to be as drastic as they show in my data, and he sees other challenges ahead for venue owners like himself and social consumers alike that may put the entire industry in question. “There’s a coffee shop I know of who ordered at least a month’s worth masks for their employees,” he explained. “That was an added cost of $5000.” Life after COVID-19 looks more expensive for venue owners like Marc. “Imagine making mask orders like that for a year. That’s another $60K in your operating costs. It may as well be another mortgage or rent payment for some of these businesses.”
This pandemic is not only changing transactional experiences in the service industry, but it’s also affecting the creative economy. For Trakgirl, life after COVID-19 could mean less time in the studio with clients and more digital touch points.
“I’m concerned with how the shift will affect my interactions with my clients and business in general. Additionally, how will relationships be affected? Is human interaction a necessity for me? Yes. I’m figuring out ways to make this digital shift.” — Trakgirl
My research explored what social life may look like after COVID-19, but along the way I discovered this new reality for small businesses. Now, I wonder, will there be any venues for us to socialize in? For the ones who survive, will they pass these costs down to the social consumer? Social life after COVID-19 may be more restrictive and expensive for stakeholders and consumers alike.
Corona-free or your money back
Ticketmaster announced plans on April 17th to issue refunds for up to 18,000 cancelled events due to the coronavirus pandemic according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. According to the report, the global ticket retailer was responding to criticism from the public and politicians. Congresswoman Katie Porter of California told Billboard in a statement, “People across the country are having to make adjustments in their lives to keep everyone safe. Ticketmaster can do its part by giving people their money back. Let’s be clear: they can do this without government action, and they can do it today. Ticketmaster should do the right thing and stop trying to profit off a pandemic.”
The call for Ticketmaster refunds mirrors sentiments from my research around refunds. When asked what kind of assurances they’d like to see from event planners and venue owners after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, one respondent said they wanted to see “a refund policy if you don’t feel comfortable going into a venue.” Another said they wanted “refund policies for venue cancellations.”
I asked Marc about the idea of offering refunds to address coronavirus concerns. He said, “If you as a consumer don’t feel comfortable, you shouldn’t go there to begin with.” Candace shared his sentiment from the social consumer perspective. “Refund policies are nice, but ultimately, if you don’t feel safe, then you shouldn’t be out,” she said. “I’d be happy for a refund if I got spooked, but I wouldn’t expect one.”
A vision of the future
So what could social life after COVID-19 look like? Here’s a short list of possibilities based on what I’ve learned.
- Fewer options, strained service — Don’t expect the wealth options or quality of service you once had. Increased operating costs due to new sanitary requirements will force many venues out of business and put a ton of pressure on those who can survive to do more with leaner staff.
- Less capacity, chaos for consumers — State and local governments will continue to slash capacity allowances for venues and require venue owners to strongly enforce social distancing. That may mean an increased demand for space at social venues where seats, tickets and reservations will be in limited supply. Consumers should expect more strict reservation guidelines for attendance, and it may be more difficult for social consumers to purchase tickets or make reservations as they compete with others for limited space.
- Cleanliness as a value prop — Venue owners will be forced to put much more energy into cleanliness and sanitizing. Small businesses won’t be able to cut corners, and regulation compliance will be a baseline expectation for consumers. Businesses with the capacity to go above and beyond will do so in an effort to capture more awareness and support from consumers who are more self conscious of sanitary practices than ever before.
There is certainly growing speculation about what life after COVID-19 will look like, and we will undoubtedly need to adapt to the shifts that await us in the months to come. The contrast between my survey outputs and the feedback from Candace and Marc make one thing clear: We won’t know what life after the pandemic looks like until we get there.