By Dee Ann Hirsch
Monday, March 23 will forever be a day like none other for me. As I drove away from our venue, I did not know when I would see it again. I fought back tears as I drove by our lagoon and worried who would check on our geese and ducks who have recently stopped there to nest. I wondered who would check on our historic artwork to ensure it was safe and had not been vandalized. I worried about my team that would still have to come in during these uncertain times. It had been hard enough to watch our bookings cancel one after the other, but that hollow feeling of uncertainty I will never forget. For the first time, I was forced to envision my world without my job.
Like many of you, the vast majority of our team is sheltering in place here in the Dallas area, and that means there has been a lot of change for all of us. Our transition to managing our venue from afar is probably not unlike all of yours, but I hope there is comfort knowing each and every one of us is experiencing the same conversations, the same feelings, the same stresses, the same sadness.
To help us transition, there were a few things that happened prior to the “Shelter in Place” order issued by Dallas County. We immediately adjusted our essential staff schedules to help reduce the likelihood of transmission of the virus. Splitting our two work teams into four, and adjusting their days and times to report in a way that would limit exposure to one another. We worked, as did many of you, to obtain additional supplies for cleaning, hand sanitizing and sanitization of restrooms and work spaces.
Workers who could work from home but needed laptops were issued equipment typically used by our internship program, and we worked to identify anyone who did not have the ability to get internet service at home.
Training on how to use the Microsoft 365 applications such as Microsoft Teams, Yammer and Zoom was provided to those staff members to whom it was most applicable by other tech savvy members of our team. All personnel who would be working from home were instructed to take critical files (electronic and hard copies) with them to minimize having to travel during the shutdown. To assist workers who would still have to travel in to work, we issued a letter that could be given to police or code enforcement should someone be stopped either coming or going from the office.
Of course, we went through the exercises of cost cutting. Slashing our expenses where possible, we shuttered exhibition space, turned off electronics and equipment that would gobble up valuable budget dollars. Our staff drained our fountains, returned rented equipment, and even cleaned out the refrigerator, ensuring no food waste was left in the buildings that could encourage pests. Our team evaluated what services could be cut, eliminated improvement projects, and cancelled trainings and trips. Anything that could be eliminated was either eliminated or significantly reduced. Our accounting team called on outstanding receivables, and looked at ways to manage cash flow. Even our vendor partners evaluated their services to see how they could help us reduce our expenses.
There were additional considerations for Fair Park, as well – we are also a 277-acre public park home to five museums, two performance facilities and several other resident institutions. Understanding who and what was open and closed, and communicating that information to the public had to occur quickly. And as those closures mounted, we began thinking about how to monitor the number of people using the park and what service amenities would remain viable. Ultimately, we reduced the number of vehicular access gates in use from five down to one, and we limited our pedestrian access to only two locations. Public restrooms and drinking fountains were closed. Guests arriving by vehicle were stopped and informed that none of our facilities were open, but they were free to stroll and enjoy the grounds. (Currently in Dallas, public parks and access to them is not restricted; Dallasites are allowed to go for a walk, exercise, ride a bike, etc.) People attempting to enter the park after hours faced more stringent security checks than usual. New protocols were drafted and provided to the security team, complete with additional emergency telephone numbers for staff should they be needed.
And just like that, we were gone. I was the last one to the leave the park on Monday. It was quiet and serene. The lights were coming on for the evening, and it had just rained – the fragrance of the spring shower still hung in the air. Everything looked so normal, but everything had changed. That moment in time is stamped in memory.
We as venue professionals – it is in our DNA to serve. We welcome the opportunity to work when others are relaxing and enjoying their time off. We are often behind the scenes helping to make memories for others. Our work hours can be long and they are almost always fun, but not this day.
Many of our venues are being activated to serve our communities in other ways, as shelters, as storage, as staging, and much more. It is uplifting to see our industry and communities come together again for the common good. While Monday’s memory will always be with me, I will choose to remember all of the good that our venues contribute to the health and well-being of others. It is that thought I will let occupy my mind during this most unusual time.
Stay strong and stay safe venue friends.
Dee Ann Hirsch is Assistant General Manager of Dallas Fair Park.