America looks forward to 2021
From an independent book shop in Portland to a high-octane theme park in Orlando, America has been missing its global travellers. High Life speaks to five local businesspeople from around the United States
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Powell’s Books, Portland
Emily Powell is the third-generation owner of Powell’s Books, one of largest independent bookshops in the world. Due to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, the store ran at 17 per cent of its normal occupancy in 2020 and the staff are keen to entice global customers back through their doors, as Powell explains...
The most important thing for all of us at Powell’s is connecting with people. One of my fondest memories is of a young gentleman who grew up in a poor household outside of Portland and would save his money to take a bus to Powell’s whenever he could, where he’d then sit on the floor and read. Eventually he managed to apply to community college and form a life for himself. He thanked us for never kicking him out. Part of our mission is to be here for the customers who can buy books, but also for those who can’t. Books play an important role in a lot of our lives and being a safe place, an umbrella on a rainy day or somewhere someone can get warm and read a book are all equally important to us.
My grandfather said, “Our job is to connect the writer’s hand with the reader’s ear and not let our ego get caught in the middle.” For me, one of the most beautiful manifestations of that mission is to bring as many viewpoints and perspectives together as possible. Right now, it’s delightful to connect with our Portland community in a way we haven’t in a long time, but we’re desperate to see all our stores open and regain that wider perspective of our jobs – having people from all over the world challenge us to make sure we have the best and broadest collection possible.
My dad tells a story about a gentleman who had come to Portland from afar. He’d had this list of books he’d been shopping for his whole life and had found one in our store (I don’t remember what it was – possibly some Polish literature that’d been translated). He decided to go to lunch and buy it afterwards. When he returned, it was gone, bought by someone else. That book could’ve been on our shelves for ten years. At Powell’s, we try to make sure the book you’re looking for is always there, and having customers from around the globe challenging our inventory helps us do that better.
Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando
Deborah Buynak is vice president of entertainment for Universal Orlando Resort (which reopened in June to limited occupancy) and has worked for Universal Parks for 29 years. She explains why hosting visitors from all over the world is key to their success, and what new events she’s excited for guests to experience this year...
My work is in live entertainment, but what that really means is ‘people interaction’. The rides at the parks bring the thrills, but we bring the heart. The live performers are so important to the resort because they bring the energy and atmosphere to the streets. We all got into this business because we like hosting guests and creating experiences that they’ll never forget. I remember when we opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade. Some friends of mine and I stood at the entrance and watched the guests as they entered for the first time through the archway into this amazing, immersive environment. Their physical reaction blew me away: tears, people falling to their knees. It was crazy talking to the guests after watching them experience that, seeing people from all over the globe share a common love for this environment and the world. This was a family experience for them and that first day will always stick with me.
But it’s the smaller scale interactions I love, too. A few weeks ago, a little boy came in dressed as Optimus Prime. I was convinced he was there to meet Optimus Prime and I was going to help him do that. Turns out I had it all wrong! He was there to give a stern word to Megatron because he was Optimus Prime. We still helped him out and he still got to take care of business, and it’s things like that that make my day.
We’re so excited to welcome our global guests back this year to enjoy our brand-new experiences including the incredible Bourne Stuntacular, which has been a big hit here (it opened in autumn). Bourne travels the world in this show so guests get to see all these locations – people from around the world will either see something very familiar because we filmed it there, or they’ll see something brand new.
Our biggest news for 2021, however, is the opening of the first coaster based on the epic Jurassic Park film franchise: Jurassic World VelociCoaster. We talk a lot about ‘edge-of-your-seat’ thrills but this is ‘out-of-your-seat thrills’. Guests will be weightless for more than 12 seconds, travel at 70mph and 155ft in the air and experience an 80° drop – the steepest we’ve ever had here. It’s insane!
Whether from Europe or the rest of the world, the people that come here have an experience that they’re not going to get anywhere else, and we miss giving them that tremendously. Hope to see you soon!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Will Sullivan is the head of visitor experience at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he has worked for 28 years. He talks about the iconic museum’s unusual year, how it’s affected him and what he’s looking forward to in 2021...
New York feels very different at the moment because we don’t have any tourists. Our visitors are mostly local now - our members and people who live uptown here in the city. It’s been different, but it’s also been emotional. When we reopened the doors on 27 August (after closing on 12 March) 2020, we were much busier than anyone anticipated, and it brought a lump to my throat.
The first day we reopened, the door needed to be held open and I was in the position to stand there and welcome dozens of people. At that time the only place a New Yorker could have gone was to the supermarket or a drug store, so having the Met reopen – for people to be able to do something that wasn’t ‘a task’ – was just joyous. I knew then that when this is all over, people will come back.
It’s amazing the number of people from around the globe who usually come to visit – sometimes you don’t even hear English spoken because it feels like the entire world is here! My husband is from Brazil so I speak Portuguese, but to look at me no one would think I understand a word of it. It’s great when I get to go up to a group and welcome them in their own language. They transform there and then and though the room might be filled with people, in that moment you’re just a human with another human. That’s one of the greatest things about The Met: it brings people from around the globe together for the shared purpose of enjoying the artwork. It’s wonderful.
Some things changed last year that I hope stick around. Now, because visitors need to make a reservation to visit, we are able to welcome them before they arrive. We can contact them with, “Hey, before you arrive at your particular time, here’s where you can find the digital map and some audio content.” Visitors arrive and can start enjoying it immediately without trying to figure out how it works. I think it’s a much more welcoming way to bring people to The Met, so I’d like to see that stay. We were also able to improve some of our technology this year – we’ve gone ticketless, for example. All of these things just make it a better experience for everyone.
Viceroy Santa Monica, Los Angeles
Deepak Mehra is the area manager for Viceroy Santa Monica, which reopened last summer after a refurbishment. So far, all the guests have been US natives, but Viceroy prides itself on an international clientele. Deepak expands…
Hotels are all about people and creating special memories, which is what I missed the most in 2020. I’ve missed interacting with people from all over the world with different backgrounds, listening to their stories and sharing moments with them.
Just recently, when we reopened the hotel, I had a guest who was so overwhelmed by the experience he had with one of our restaurant staff, that it brought tears to his eyes. He described a dish – a black bean soup – that he told my colleague he had tried and loved while travelling in Mexico. My colleague, who is Mexican, went home and asked her mother to cook the soup for the guest, and she then sent it to the guest’s room. That’s the kind of authenticity and attention that our staff try to offer our guests, and we hope experiences like that will stay with them forever.
Fifty per cent of our visitors in Santa Monica are international travellers, especially in the summer, and I can’t wait for them to experience the hotel since its refurbishment. It’s fun, fresh and beach-forward, inspired by our local surroundings. I know guests will really enjoy our new outdoor spaces, which feature firepits and eclectic wall murals, and the patio is such a cool spot, whether for work or play. I hope it’ll become a new social hub for the local community as well as for travelling guests. We were designing this space pre-pandemic, but it’s a perfect post-pandemic open-air space too: very open, very ‘California’, very beachy, and we’re excited to showcase that.
Sid Gold’s Request Room, Nashville
Paul Devitt is the owner of Sid Gold’s Request Room, a chain of karaoke piano bars in New York City, Detroit and Nashville. The latter is the only open venue at present, though the New York branch celebrated its five-year anniversary in 2020. Devitt talks about his history and his hopes for 2021...
The magic of Sid Gold’s is that the whole room gets engaged. People, total strangers, just go up on stage and sing, the spotlight on them while they have their three minutes of fame. Whether you’re good or bad, people are always so encouraging. So many people have told me, “Oh my god, I’ve never been to a place like this, I love it so much.” It just seems there’s this kind of magic. It’s challenging at the moment, of course, what with the 50 per cent occupancy restriction and no one being allowed within 12 feet of any entertainer – and for us being a piano bar, it’s kind of the thing!
What I love about my work is the diversity, the different crowds and different people that come into Sid’s. I used to run a place called Beauty Bar which was a bar in an old beauty salon in NYC. The gimmick was that for $10 you get a drink and a manicure. I met people from all over the world there and I love the fact that they appreciated the whole vibe and the nostalgia, which is really what it’s all about. Sid Gold’s is the same way. It’s all very vintage and retro, which is my vibe – it’s what I do.
I’m excited about our Nashville branch. The city is becoming a much bigger tourist destination than ever before so I can’t wait to open it up to people from all over the world and for them to experience Sid Gold's as it should be. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to bring Sid’s to London!
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