President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on 28 December 2020 saw the lockdown enter an adjusted Level 3 which had a direct effect on our local attractions’ visitor numbers and peak season/school holiday season.

We chatted to three of the country’s top sites to compare what the 2020/2021 season looked like vs the 2019/2020 one:

Jack Lester, Harties Cableway:

What were your visitor numbers like at the start of the peak season and school holidays vs after the adjusted level 3 lockdown announcement?

The period after the adjusted level 3 lockdown was very good in terms of visitor numbers. We found ourselves trading up on the previous year for two of the months (the previous year’s numbers base was very good). We are pleased with the performance. The period during the peak season and school holidays were very similar to the previous year’s peak season with us trading very slightly down on the previous year.

What was your attraction offering before lockdown in comparison to what is it now?

Very much the same as before lockdown. Our adjustments included slightly shortened menus in our eateries for the first three months and our waitrons became “runners” who cleared and sanitised tables and chairs only. There is no waiter service. Work on call order to cashier system in conjunction with buzzers which alert guests when their orders are ready for collection. This was very well received. Social distancing protocols were implemented in all areas of the operation. We have limited the amount of guests in our gondolas, no “strangers” are permitted to share gondolas. Social distancing at all queuing areas, sanitising stations everywhere and limited / reduced capacities in all eateries.

Which  adjustments have you made overall to accommodate the new normal?

Pretty much as above

How does this peak season/school holiday period compare to 2019/early 2020?

It’s been very similar / slightly down.

Which key learnings have you taken from the 2020/early 2021 peak season/school holidays?

Guests are very actively looking for (and supporting) properties / activities which are deemed to be “safe” in terms of COVID-19. Guest are extremely supportive and co-operative.  It is now more important than ever to be very pro-active in all aspects of the business – especially managing protocols (staff and guests) as well as expectations.

Mantombi Tofile, uShaka Marine World:

uShaka Marine World has implemented a number of measures to accommodate lockdown changes

What were your visitor numbers like at the start of the peak season and school holidays vs after the adjusted level 3 lockdown announcement?

The numbers picked up at the start of peak season and holidays but dropped drastically after the adjusted level 3 lockdown announcement and restrictions came into place, particularly after the declaration of eThekwini Municipality as a hot spot.  The reduction in numbers is partly due to the fact that we shut down Wet ‘n Wild and Dolphin Shows which are our main attractions during December peak.

What was your attraction offering before lockdown in comparison to what is it now?

We have shut Wet ‘n Wild and Kids World as well as the Dolphin shows down. The other attractions e.g. Aquarium, remain open taking into consideration the current COVID-19 government regulations

Which adjustments have you made overall to accommodate the new normal?

uShaka Marine World (UMW) has reduced guest numbers allowed in each attraction in adherence to the current government regulations. We have also put into place strict COVID-19 protocols (i.e. sanitizing and practicing social distancing) with reinforcement through radio messages in Village Walk, signage and COVID-19 Marshals throughout the park at all times.  We also adjusted the operating hours to be in line with the regulations.

How does this peak season/school holiday period compare to 2019/early 2020?

There is no comparison. Guest numbers are extremely low, less than 10% of our normal peak season figures.

Which key learnings have you taken from the 2020/early 2021 peak season/school holidays?

The safety of our guests and staff remains a priority. Management continues to explore different options to send out messages informing the public that uShaka remains open and is safe without been seen to be contradicting the overall “stay at home” government message.   Information is published on different platforms and via our stakeholders in order to keep uShaka top of mind to the public and create much needed footfall to the park and Village Walk Mall.

Ingrid Sinclair, Two Oceans Aquarium:

Two Oceans Aquarium shares their peak season insights with us

What were your visitor numbers like at the start of the peak season and school holidays vs after the adjusted level 3 lockdown announcement?

Though we performed at 50%+ under 2019 results right from the start of the holiday season, our December numbers tracked the steady trend of growing over time and we held out hope that the numbers would continue to rise and peak, as they did in previous years, towards and beyond Christmas Day. When adjusted Level 3 was announced, however, that trend flatlined, then dipped.

What was your attraction offering before lockdown in comparison to what is it now?

We have been very fortunate in that our core value proposition – the animals – remains largely untouched, and all 8 000+ of our individual animals are still viewable in one form or another. We have had to temporarily close some other key attractions such as the I&J Children’s Play Centre and along with it our arts and crafts value-add, which is so important for the family market, but we were able to move our Puppet Shows to a more spacious location within the Aquarium and continue with them there at more regular intervals to accommodate capacity limitations.

Crawl-spaces and high-touch interactive exhibits have been temporarily closed, and we are no longer advertising our feeding time presentations in order to discourage gatherings of people in one place – though these do still take place from time to time when we are not too busy. We no longer allow food and drink to be consumed inside the Aquarium, which has obviously had a negative impact on food and bev revenue.

Which adjustments have you made overall to accommodate the new normal?

The “new normal” has forced us to look at every single aspect of our business through a magnifying glass – and that’s not a bad thing! The biggest adjustment from an operational point of view is probably the careful capacity tracking – we count every single head that enters and exits the building to ensure that we stay well within the 50% capacity limitation as recommended by Government regulations. All of a sudden we need one or two more staff members to attend to this vital operational requirement.

The most difficult and stressful adjustment I would say has been the enforcement of mask-wearing. 99% of our visitors comply, but occasionally difficult customers ignore the signage, announcements, and direct requests. We have policies in place to deal with such customers, but eventually we had to accept that protocol enforcement is an ongoing effort that requires focused energy and repetition, and that there is no one single action that will ensure 100% compliance by all of the people all of the time. It’s a massive responsibility that we didn’t really anticipate until we were in the trenches.

How does this peak season/school holiday period compare to 2019/early 2020?

For December and January combined we were 56% down from 2019/20 – paying visitors, excluding complimentaries, under 4s and members.

Which key learnings have you taken from the 2020/early 2021 peak season/school holidays?

I’d say that until December we were perhaps all to varying degrees in a bit of denial about the long-term impacts of the pandemic – and that it would somehow miraculously “blow over” from January 2021 and we could then get back to life as it was pre-coronavirus. This is only human. Now, I think, we are starting the process of acceptance: that there is no quick fix, and that the pandemic’s impacts – on industries, livelihoods, and the psycho-social zeitgeist – will be very broad, unpredictable, and long-lasting.

With that said, reputation matters more than ever. Maintaining and exceeding our high standards – whether the exhibits, the service, or the cleanliness of our building – is crucial to the long-term sustainability of our business. Our strategic priorities must reflect the importance of visitor experience – high levels of satisfaction will provide the social proof we need to remain a viable business for the next 25 years.