By Richard G. Biever
Marcy Dodson was working at home — alone — as most everyone has the past couple of months. She was putting together the first installment of a new virtual feature for the Indiana State Museum designed to keep patrons engaged remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic closure.
The topic was a goosebumper to begin with; she was editing together clips of “encounters with the unexplained” that paranormal investigation enthusiasts had recorded at various historic sites throughout the state. But, like everything else during this tempest of pestilent times, it took on an added air of eeriness.
“My husband was working remotely on the other side of the house, so we didn’t see each other,” Dodson said. “I kept replaying the clips over and over again and getting everything ready.” And though Dodson, the manager of adult programs and community engagement for the State Museum, had been familiar with most of the clips and the scary stories since they came from coworkers who moonlight as ghost hunters, she said it was funny … “I was getting spooked out making the presentation.”
Normally, Dodson would have been hosting or moderating the engagement program surrounded by a group of real people, in flesh and blood, at the Indianapolis museum. “It definitely is a switch,” she said.
The program, “Quirky Queries: At Home,” went live the last Saturday night in April. A good group of a hundred souls signed into the Zoom program on their computers or mobile devices and stayed for the full 70-some minutes. “It was a great win for not having been able to do a program in over a month,” Dodson said.
The New Normal
Like most all of society, festivals and events and places associated with travel and tourism this time of year have had to face new realities since the pandemic response began in March. And those realities, ironically, have meant going virtual. The internet and social media have never been more important in keeping people connected to other people, their jobs, their schools, and their communities.
While many festivals and events whose sole purpose is to bring people together have already been canceled through July, destinations — such as the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites — have found new or enhanced ways to engage the public during the shutdown. “Better virtual than viral” has become the 2020 equivalent to the proverbial “better safe than sorry.” When it comes to education, engagement and entertainment, the only “viral” folks want to see are the rising numbers of views for the videos and other content they post.
“Digital content has been really important to our members for the last few years,” said Carrie Lambert, executive director of the Indiana Tourism Association. “So, some of these things people have been doing for a long time. But now, they’re serving it up in different or more creative ways because all these people are sitting at home trying to figure out what to do.”
The association Lambert heads includes some 65 of the state’s county-level visitors’ bureaus; larger destinations like Holiday World, Fair Oaks Farms, zoos, and the like; and affiliate members, including Indiana Connection, and several universities. The tourism association is focused on professional development and lobbying for the industry.
Meanwhile, Visit Indiana is the public face of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, a state agency that works to coordinate efforts to promote travel throughout Indiana. It also publishes the Indiana Festival Guide each year with financial support from Hoosier Energy REC.
The private and public entities work hand-in-hand to support the state’s tourism industry. Hoosiers might be surprised to learn that the state’s tourism revenues offset and save each Hoosier household an average of $566 in state and local taxes each year, according to the IOTD.
The tourism industry is always one of the first to be hit in times like these or like after 9/11. But Lambert noted tourism is also one of the first industries to bounce back. Even after things reopen, though, she said there will be a “comfortability factor” in what visitors and travelers are going to want to do.
“All research is showing us right now that no one is going to rush out to a large concert or a very high-density packed festival,” she said. “Our members are recognizing that even if things open in June, we’re probably not going to be getting people coming from far, far away. The beauty of this is that we typically have people driving through. We’re not Florida; we don’t usually have people flying in all the time.”
Lambert added, “We’re going to have to circle our wagons a little bit closer to home, and probably that’s going to be for quite awhile.”
In the meantime, Lambert said many of the county tourism groups have already been focusing on local residents. Folks want to know what their community offers when distant family and friends come calling. “So, they’ve really upped the ante on what they’ve offered for their community, and are looked at as a community resource,” she said.
During the pandemic, she said some county groups have turned their homepages into a veritable smorgasbord of things to do in the community. The websites include daily virtual event listings, things to do while social distancing, things to do in solitude, recreational opportunities that are still open, lists of local restaurants offering curb-side service, and even job openings for folks furloughed from their regular jobs.
“They’ve taken that existing platform they had and really flipped the switch on it and have been able to use it in a way that’s a great community resource,” Lambert said.
Much of the video content that museums and the like are now posting on YouTube and social media to keep kids and adults entertained is “evergreen.” It can remain up or be slightly repackaged post-pandemic and continue serving present or future visitors, Lambert explained. “It doesn’t matter if it’s April 2020 or September of 2022. You can still put together baking soda and vinegar and have it explode.”
During these hard times in which so many people have been touched with loss — loss of opportunities, of once-in-a-lifetime events, of jobs, and of loved ones — Lambert said many of the entertainment and tourism sites are just trying to lift peoples’ spirits. “They’re just trying to be sources of smiles and fun and memories.”
Cathy Ferree, CEO at the Indiana State Museum, said memories are made of shared experiences. While many of the places for shared experiences have been closed during the pandemic, she said it’s important for institutions to seek new ways to stay connected to people, at least virtually for now.
She noted the paranormal program that Marcy Dodson put together, for instance, as one example of the museum bringing value to Hoosiers despite the doors being closed in these times that are anything but normal. “They stayed on a Zoom call for a little over 70 minutes which, when people are now spending their week on Zoom, we thought was impressive for a Saturday night,” Ferree said. “That was an opportunity for people to have a shared experience and be together. We felt that resonated.”
Ferree added that one goal of the virtual programs is that they will entice those who tuned in to actually visit the historic site or sites in person. “These are really invitations for later when we are able to move forward and move around more.”
With these virtual programs now, the museum is also is surveying participants and trying to gain a better understanding of what patrons will want in the future. It is venturing into topics it might not have offered under normal conditions. “Everybody is looking for any silver lining with the situation we’re in, and doing virtual programming is a lot less expensive than hands-on,” said Ferree. “We can try some different things that we might not be able to afford to do and take a little more risk because the expense is much less.”
Once restrictions on group sizes start to ease up, she said people are going to need to get out. “We’re going to need something beyond the screen of any kind … really getting outside in nature.” And there, she said, is where Indiana’s historic sites, parks and less-crowded places will shine. “Where people normally may go to California or out East for a vacation, they may be more inclined to stay in their own region or neighborhood,” she said.
How folks marked this historic time will be the subject of future museum exhibits, programming, lectures, and discussions everywhere.
“Post-COVID-19 will be different than pre-COVID-19,” Ferree philosophized. “This is a pretty big disruptor. It’s not a blip.” Having gone through a time of social distancing and virtual gatherings, she said she’s hopeful this shared experience will bring communities a little closer.
“We’re all in this together” has resonated, she said. “We’ve pulled together as a state in a way we’ve not had to do before. I think it will be really important to see how people take what we have learned from this and pull it forward in terms of how we work together.
“I hope what comes out of this is that people start to recognize how important these community events are, that they’re as much about being together and celebrating as whatever it is — whether it’s the symphony, opera, a football game — and that we recognize the value behind what these things do bring to society at large,” Ferree said.
RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Indiana Connection.
As this issue of Indiana Connection was being written in early May, the stages of lifting the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had been announced by Gov. Eric Holcomb. Until public gatherings can once again occur safely, Indiana Connection has compiled a list from VisitIndiana.com (visitindiana.com/blog/index.php/2020/03/25/virtual-vacations/) and other sources of “Virtual Vacations” you can experience safely from home.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis ‘At Home’
The “Museum at Home” page features all kinds of fun videos, blogs, and live chats. Educators and experts will bring engaging live content and there will also be story time for the smaller kids, which includes a story read by retired Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck!
Conner Prairie At Home
Conner Prairie is giving visitors to its website a whole new way to enjoy the historical park — from the comfort of home with the entire family! Unprecedented opportunities will be given to learn from Conner Prairie’s experts as they share their knowledge, behind-the-scenes happenings, demonstrations, Q&As, live performances and more. Exciting new content is being uploaded daily.
Favorite museum artworks from the Eiteljorg’s Native American, Western and Contemporary collections are highlighted on the museum’s website, along with special features, stay-at-home activities for families and deep dives into two fascinating exhibitions at the museum.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari Videos
Holiday World held its first “Digital Opening Day” May 2 with video fireworks. And until the park opens for real, scheduled for June 14, there are many virtual options to visit from the comfort of your couch! Experience 360° POV interactive rides on many of their coasters, including The Voyage, The Raven, The Legend, Thunderbird, Wildebeest, and the NEW for 2020 Cheetah Chase! Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari will also be posting videos on its Facebook page regularly to help keep Holidog’s friends active and moving! Follow its Facebook page to keep up with the videos or venture to Holidog’s Digital FunTown that can be found online at HolidayWorld.com.
Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites
The Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites are theming each day of the week with fun social media content! From educational activities on Tuesday to demos on Thursdays, you won’t want to miss a single moment. Since date nights are currently on pause, “Adults Night In” on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. will feature more adult-oriented content. The Facebook page of each historic site will also be sharing behind-the-scenes tours and fun facts!
Indiana State Parks Goes Virtual
From Indiana Dunes to Turkey Run, Indiana’s State Parks are an incredible dive into the beauty of nature. Since most are stuck at home on their couches, the state parks still want us all to be able to experience the outdoors. Multiple #VirtualINStatePark videos will be posted on their Facebook page each day. There aren’t many times you can see Pelicans migrate and waterfalls flow inside of your own house!
Indianapolis Zoo ‘Bringing the Zoo to You’
The Indianapolis Zoo is #BringingTheZooToYou with an insider’s glance at its animals and staff. Its behind-the-scenes videos give a glimpse into a never-before-seen side of the wildlife at the zoo. Videos include brown bears playing together, an introduction to two new gazelle calves, and Kazi the warthog getting some relaxing back scratches! Follow its Facebook page for a new video added each day.
Kosciusko County Virtual Tour
Kosciusko County is full of outdoor recreation, lake life, attractions, dining, shopping and more. This aerial tour of the county lets you experience all of that while learning more about what Kosciusko County has to offer! You can explore Warsaw’s downtown district, see the one of a kind Village at Winona, and get a feel for its abundance of lakes.
Make sure to check out our profile of Kosciusko County at https://www.indianaconnection.org/county-profile-kosciusko-county/
West Baden Springs Hotel Tour
West Baden Springs Hotel was once known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. The six-story free-span dome is breathtaking, regardless of whether you experience it in person or online. You can virtually tour West Baden Spring Hotel’s incredible atrium, lobby, library, and pool.