From Protests to Virus: Operational Changes with An Eye on Survival

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This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Serena Fan, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum

After almost three years of planning, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum (HKCDM) opened in September 2018 on the first floor of a commercial building in a family-friendly district on Hong Kong Island. The 6,600-square-foot space has more than forty exhibits for families with children ten years old and under to explore, create, and express themselves. During our first year of operation, 60,000 visitors came to the museum, including field trip visitors from 210 kindergartens, primary schools, and other community organizations. HKCDM opened with eighteen full time and twenty-three part time staff.

The ‘Best-Laid Plans’

Due to capacity issues, this city’s first children’s museum initially opened on a reservation-only basis. (By law, HKCDM has a maximum capacity of 200 people, including staff.) Three daily fixed-time sessions allowed visitors to explore the museum for up to two and a half hours. The timed reservation system helped ensure we would not have to turn visitors away, as our online ticketing platform could show when a session was full. Visitors could purchase tickets before coming or, take their chances: if the session was not full upon arrival, they could purchase tickets onsite.

In addition to legal capacity, the three fixed time slots were important because of the one-hour break in between them. This respite allowed us sufficient time to clean thoroughly, as Hong Kong parents are hyper-vigilant about cleanliness. More importantly, it provided time for staff to process what we just experienced and to quickly share how we could do things better in the next session. 

There were downsides to the ticketing platform. If a family pre-purchased tickets and a child became ill, we had to help them rebook their visit to another day. It was also challenging in the event of sudden inclement weather, like typhoons or heavy rain, during which we would have to rebook multiple sessions. We also learned that the fixed visiting times were restrictive for a primary demographic—families with toddlers—as each child’s eating and sleeping routines could vary from day to day.

Almost ten months after opening, as staff gained experience, the need for the hour-long cleaning and debrief intervals was reduced. So we started planning to move to a more traditional museum visitation model, where visitors could arrive at any time. Still bound by maximum capacity levels, we would keep visit durations at two and a half hours.

Protests Accelerate Operational Changes

Less than a year after HKCDM’s opening, Hong Kong experienced a major citywide disruption. In June 2019, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the Hong Kong government’s proposed extradition bill, which would allow criminal fugitives to be extradited to places with which Hong Kong currently does not have an extradition agreement. Notably, one of those countries is mainland China. When the government decided to proceed with the reading of the bill, a much larger demonstration was organized, which ended with the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets. From there, weekly weekend demonstrations, often ending with tear gas, were common.

As time progressed, weekday boycotts called for citizens to stay home from work as a way to show support against the extradition bill. At the height of the anger against the government, demonstrators successfully shut down the city’s transportation system for a week. The Mass Transit Railway (subway) was so damaged at some major stations that it became unusable. In addition, roadblocks were set up at key areas around the city. Between the two, it was practically impossible to go anywhere. During that week, schools closed and more than half of our staff were unable to come to work.

Needless to say, these unprecedented events left us scrambling to put protocols into place. Furthermore, it pushed us to quickly change the way we operated, especially because it was predicted that protests could last for months and it was clear visitor attendance was already being affected. New and unforeseen variables added to the known limitations of the reservation system.

In July 2019, we piloted open sessions for two weeks. Visitors could come experience HKCDM for two and a half hours at any time during our regular hours. New visitors thanked us for the change, as some had always wanted to come, but could never find a session time that fit their schedule. Now they could come at a time that was most convenient for them. We learned some things about ideal visit start times as well. Our previous 12:30 p.m. fixed session start times were not as busy as our 4:00 p.m. sessions, because most families were still eating lunch midday. Once we moved to open sessions, we saw a rise in families coming at 1:30 p.m. On the weekend, this flexibility became important, because families would come in the early afternoon and leave in time to get home before the protests started again in the evening.

However, during the two-week pilot, we learned that the museum would need to implement major operational changes before this system became permanent. For example, we required a more sophisticated point-of-sale system. Open admissions required staff to handle all ticketing directly, instead of relying on the online ticketing platform formerly used to make reservations. We also needed a dedicated phone line and staff member to answer visitors’ inquiries about fluctuating daily capacity. We determined it would take us two months to adequately prepare for a permanent change to open sessions. So, we returned to our original fixed session system once the pilot was completed. This was painful, as the protests continued and families were limited to when they could come. The decrease in attendance was drastic, but we remained committed to a return to the fixed session system until staff was completely comfortable with a more sustainable plan.

In early November 2019, we switched permanently to open sessions. By then, protests were somewhat dying down, although families were still planning weekend activities around where ongoing protests were scheduled to take place. On weekends when rumors indicated that protests would occur near us, attendance would be low. Furthermore, the hot and humid summer had changed to cool and crisp fall weather, so fewer families were searching for engaging indoor activities. Thankfully, school field trips resumed so we were busy during the weekdays.

As Protests Wane, Coronavirus Hits

In mid-February 2020, Hong Kong experienced its second major citywide disruption within eight months. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, closed schools and government facilities, such as libraries and swimming pools, until further notice. As news of the virus began to emerge, our first response was to purchase an enormous supply of face masks and cleaning supplies. The day after this purchase was made, both masks and supplies were either completely sold out or twice the price all over the city. Thankfully we made a timely decision to purchase additional supplies, as the stress of not having enough masks or cleaning products would have been tremendous and extremely costly. It may also have hindered our decision as to whether to open and for how long we could operate.

The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.
The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.  Now, under new guidelines, all visitors and staff must wear surgical face masks throughout their time in the museum.  If they do not have them, the museum supplies them. The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.  Now, under new guidelines, all visitors and staff must wear surgical face masks throughout their time in the museum.  If they do not have them, the museum supplies them.

We also reverted back to fixed-time sessions. Once again, people need to make a reservation before coming to the museum. However, a new part of the reservation process requires potential visitors to answer a travel-related question: has anyone in the group wishing to visit been anywhere outside of Hong Kong in the past fourteen days (the virus’s supposed incubation period). In order to avoid discriminating against people traveling from different countries (mainland China, for example, as opposed to Canada, where the virus was exceedingly rare at the time), we made the difficult decision to impose a blanket ban on all destinations outside of Hong Kong. If anyone in the group answers yes, staff politely asked that the family book at a later date.

We also established new guidelines. All visitors and staff must wear a surgical facemask throughout their time at the museum (if they do not have them, the museum will supply them) and we lowered our maximum capacity number to fifty people. With fewer visitors, everyone can spread out and if a sick person, often yet to be diagnosed, is in the museum, the chances of infecting others are lower. Despite these precautionary measures, reservations are understandably still down. Although we were only able to open four days in February, some families were grateful that we were open at all so that their children could run around and to do something different from being cooped up at home.

A Present on Hold; A Future Unknown

After three years of conscientious planning, the museum opened with every expectation of success. However, these two unparalleled, back-to-back challenges have not only severely reduced admissions revenues, but have drained our three months of operating revenue cash reserves as well. Fortunately, museum donors are still supportive of HKCDM’s work, so the goal is to try to survive this period of unknowns.

In the meantime, we reduced expenses in order to sustain the museum through an indefinite period. For starters, beginning in February, temporary salary adjustments were put in place in accordance with Hong Kong employment regulations. All twenty of the museum’s full-time staff members received about 62 percent of their normal salaries. Fortunately, staff were in agreement with this arrangement. However, if the virus persists and the government continues to advocate that public places be closed, it is unclear whether this salary arrangement will continue to be acceptable to all. During this temporary reduced-salary period, the operations manager and myself are working full-time; remaining staff are working half-time, and sometimes from home.

Staff responsibilities have also been temporarily adjusted to make best possible use of available time and skills to meet the needs of the museum and our audience. For example, initially it was difficult to determine what additional tasks could be assigned to floor staff, working half their hours and with fewer visitors. Social media content, typically created and managed by the marketing team, was essential for keeping the public updated about health and safety measures as well as museum operating hours. We have now combined the skills of all teams to create social media content to keep our audience engaged. Floor staff and the education team are working together to create activities for children to do at home, which the marketing team then posts on the museum’s social media channels.

The above paragraphs were written in mid-February. Now, as we move into June, after a one-month mandatory closure by the government in April, we cautiously re-opened in May. People have gradually resumed going out to public places. Our reservation-only fixed-time sessions are often reaching our lowered maximum capacity. In the summer of 2019, many groups booked visits, but with the uncertainty of whether a second wave will occur in 2020, there have yet to be any similar bookings for the remainder of this year. We are planning to hold our own summer workshops to hopefully help generate additional revenue. While the past year has been difficult, we can confidently say we are a team of flexible, creative problem solvers, and that no problem is too big for us to tackle!

Serena Fan is the founder and executive director of the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum.