The Next Normal
My grandparents never completely let go of the Great Depression. Mistrust of banks, obsessive frugality and a pervasive vigilance persisted for the rest of their lives-which in my Grandmother’s case extended well into the 1990s. Like the Depression or a World War, Covid-19 represents a human inflection point. While 12 to 24 months hence it is likely that there will be both vaccines and treatments to cure and help prevent the transmission of the physical virus, our mental model of the world has been altered by a “psychological virus” that will be generational.
Does it mean that people won’t seek new destinations, novel experience and the spiritual refreshment granted by exploration and play? No, in fact we already see the largest pent-up demand for travel, recreation and the vitaity of live performance ever. Does it mean that at some point a magic whistle blows and the entire world reverts to pre-Covid life? Also no.
What happens next has been called the “New Normal”-a label I find misleading because it implies there was an “Old Normal”. Physics, anthropology, sociology and even philosophy all offer demonstrations that the entire idea of something called “Normal”-a reliable and unchanging construct underlying our experience-is bunk. “Normal” is wiggly, It moves and changes all the time. When I was a kid it was “normal” to roll down the window on the 1953 Chevy and toss a French-fry bag out the window. It was easy too, cause—no seatbelts. In the mid 70s, every meeting room came equipped with ashtrays and smoking was ubiquitous. In those meetings, there were very few people of color and almost no women. Not only are these things no longer “normal”, they’re abhorrent. If we must cling to a concept of “normal”, I prefer the idea of a “Next Normal”. It isn’t a destination, it’s a wide spot in an endless road full of potential.
For experience designers, and I don’t care whether the form factor is a podcast or a half-billion-dollar resort, the next chapter for human engagement will rely on understanding that the specter of the pandemic remains, and we need to adjust our criteria. Here are some design drivers that are key to the immediate “next normal”.
- Understand what is valuable to an audience now. As an example, we’ve discovered that, although the unemployment and inconvenience are difficult, we (and I mean our species) like quiet. We have a renewed appreciation for nature, for the uncontrived and for open space. We might miss getting on a plane to travel but we don’t miss the noise of them overhead. On the other hand, we have rediscovered that we’re social beasts and we need each other. Developing fresh guest models based on current information is essential and it may mean a big pivot away from comfortable legacies toward something fresh.
- PERCEPTION of safety moves to the top of the list. Every destination, every experience provider has an obligation and a market imperative to assure guest safety. In our Disney careers as an example, it was always the top of the hierarchy: “Safety-Courtesy-Show-Efficiency”. The reason is simple—if a guest doesn’t feel safe, they won’t be able to pay attention to the others much less enjoy and recommend them, and if a guest gets hurt, that can be a brand killer—over and above the ethical considerations. Whether it’s a mask requirement, rethinking interior densities and distancing, installing high volume air handlers for 10 turnovers an hour with .01-micron HEPA filters or posting clear information on expected guest and staff behavior, “safety first” is essential. Understanding what that looks like in a specific place for a specific audience and balancing that with what is ethical and fact-based is the key. In a current destination project, we surveyed potential North American guests on perceptions of safety. Interestingly, “Access to a physician who speaks English” was much higher rated as an indicator of feeling safe than masks, distancing or hand sanitation. That doesn’t mean we didn’t design capacities to allow for social distancing, it does mean that our operational model puts heavy emphasis on partnering with a branded healthcare provider and an onsite medical facility staffed with fully bilingual practitioners.
- This is a chance to re-think EVERYTHING. From an experience brand to business models and from standard operating guidelines to partnerships, the Next Normal is also the Great Reset. This moment is an opportunity to rethink, retool and reinvent. If your primary market can’t get to you right now because cruises are on pause, examine who can. Maybe it’s a whole new group of potential fans that was invisible before, including your local community. Too reliant on a single supply or distribution chain component? Every deal should be on the table for renegotiation. Most importantly, this is a forced “time-out” for a lot of destinations and venues. Take advantage of that space to ask questions like: “What can we offer that no one else can?” “Looking ahead, how can we change our product to make our guests feel safe and still offer distinction?” “What have we always thought would be great but have never tried?”
The Pandemic of 2020 has reshaped the human world. It leaves behind a deep chasm of grief for lost and suffering loved ones, economic damage that will take a decade to recover from and exacerbation of the failures of our systems of social justice. If there is a silver lining, Covid-19 has also been an object lesson in how a soft, slow, clawless, fangless species—whose young are helpless in nature for a decade or more—conquered a planet, for good or ill. Humans are the innovators. We can assess conditions in the present moment, tell ourselves and each other stories about how things could be different, and take action to make change. The way we engage each other in the act of play—something that more and more species are found to highly prize—may be the most powerful leading vector for what next looks like.