A few weeks ago, I visited the Seattle Kraken team store, where I was stopped outside for a routine COVID-19 screening. After having my temperature taken and answering a couple of questions, I was then asked for my ticket that showed I had a reservation for the 4:20 p.m. entry time.
Making a reservation to go shopping for hockey swag seemed at first like the sort of startling but minor inconvenience typical of the COVID-19 era, a way to reduce the store's anticipated crowds so masked shoppers could maintain proper distance indoors. But as everything from team stores to museums, galleries, gyms, parks, and ski areas adopt similar reservation requirements this fall, it seems as if we are no longer witnessing a temporary phenomenon. A widespread switch to reservation systems — if done right — could in fact be one of the better changes to come out of the pandemic upheaval.
Reservation systems were the subject of heated debate even prior to the pandemic, with many such measures only being implemented now out of sheer necessity. In particular, politicians and visitors bristled at certain National Parks considering reservation systems in order to prevent overcrowding; Sen. Mitt Romney (R) and the rest of Utah's congressional delegation cautioned the Department of the Interior against "pursuing burdensome visitor limitations and reservation systems" at Zion National Park in February of this year, while heated debates took place in 2018 over the suggestion of doing the same at Arches. "Can you imagine driving up to the Grand Canyon and a sign says, 'Sorry we're full'? It's just not right," one opponent told Moab Sun News. Meanwhile the Glenstone, a reservation-only Maryland museum "designed around visitor experience rather than maximizing the number of visitors who cross its threshold," was criticized as being potentially elitist for such a policy, The Washington Post wrote at the time. Needless to say, people really, really seem to dislike reservations. And for anyone who's ever walked up to a restaurant only to be snootily asked, "well, do you have a reservation?" before being turned away, it's understandable to balk.
At the heart of the debates leading up to this point was the question of if the payoff of a higher-quality experience — actually seeing Old Faithful without having to stand on your tip-toes behind throngs of tourists, or being able to contemplate Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" for more than 30 seconds before being shooed out by a stopwatch-wielding attendant — outweighs the value of unimpeded access. With the pandemic, though, the decision was pretty much made for us: more people bad. It's turning out there's a bit of truth to that and an even more compelling argument has emerged: that people deserve quality access, not just one or the other.
As the phrase suggests, that requires balance, which is a tricky thing to ask of businesses and nonprofits that are under orders to, say, not open at more than 25 percent capacity right now, but are surely hurting due to the low attendance (one study, for example, found that 1 in 8 museums worldwide might not be able to reopen after the pandemic). As much as I'd selfishly like for the MoMA or my local gym to require reservations and continue capping at only a quarter capacity after the pandemic, it's obviously not realistic. Instead, there might be sense to following a common restaurant model of accepting majority reservations, but keeping a limited number of day-of, walk-up spots available for spontaneous visitors (or the poor planners). Or maybe a few days a month could be set aside for reservations-only visitors. The plus sides are obvious: in addition to reducing the number of visitors at any given point in the day, it saves you time waiting in line (and ends the possibility of showing up to the gym for a run, only to realize there are no open treadmills).
There are nevertheless risks, including the absolute worst version of this model, which would see institutions charging a premium rate for reservations to make up for the smaller number of paying entrants, and which tips the balance too heavily toward quality over access. Other downsides might look like what can be encountered in Japan, where some reservations have become so exclusive that there are entire services that exist to help you try to get one. Another concern is the threat of rebellious overflow; many ski areas, for example, are preparing reservation systems for this winter, which is making some people nervous that the plan will backfire. Jon Miller, the founder of Backcountry United, told Colorado's Summit Daily News that he is worried about what skiers and snowboarders might do if they can't get in through Vail Resort's new reservation system. "If they can't go skiing on a powder day with a chairlift, then naturally they are going to go somewhere else, and that's where the national forests are going to be that somewhere else," he said — which is scary, because of the threat of avalanches or off-the-grid injuries. Still, there's no easy fix for having something become so popular that the demand swamps the supply of space or product, reservation system or no (see: cronuts). At least with reservations, you might ensure that when you do finally get admitted, you can enjoy an experience that was worth the wait.
Even skeptics have started to come around after experiencing the rollout of reservation systems during the pandemic. "I love to go to the park on the spur of the moment," one visitor wrote in an email to Rocky Mountain National Park officials, as reported by 5280; the park introduced its timed-entry permits in June. "But I've done timed entry [three times] now and have changed my mind," the visitor went on. "I love it. The park was so overused the past several years and it has been a pleasure to be back up there with a lot less people." Another visitor wrote that "we hope the newly implemented reservation system becomes permanent … It made the park experience SO much better!!"
There is plenty to happily leave behind when the pandemic is over: masks, skin-cracking hand sanitizers, Zoom happy hours. But reservations? Sign me right up — 5 p.m. sounds great.