Earlier this year, theaters, performance halls and entertainment venues across the nation went dark as the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Once-full auditoriums were left empty, while box offices coast to coast were forced to close.

In June, the Broadway League announced the cancellation of all Broadway shows through the end of 2020 — a move that extended the longest production shutdown in Broadway’s history. The cancellations and shutdowns left tour operators wondering if entertainment could still be a part of their itineraries in the “new normal.”

Although the coronavirus has yet to make its curtain call, the entertainment industry has found innovative and creative means to keep the joy of performing arts alive for tour groups. Some theaters and venues are now back open, with safety precautions in place, while others are busy making plans for the day the curtains will rise again.

Branson, Missouri

Noah, Sight & Sound Theatres, Branson, Mo.
Credit: ExploreBranson.com

Home to more than 40 theater venues offering live music, comedy, variety and magic shows, Branson’s entertainment scene is a big draw for groups. Itinerary favorites include Sight & Sound Theatres, Clay Cooper Theatre, The Haygoods, Hughes Brothers Theatre and Presleys’ Country Jubilee, just to name a few.

At the time of publication, 80–85% of Branson’s shows had resumed after closing earlier this year due to the pandemic.

“Branson is open for business,” said Lenni Neimeyer, director of leisure group sales at Explore Branson. “We are practicing all the safety measures required of us and we’re just eager to host folks and entertain them. We’re ready — the show must go on!”

Safety measures in place for Branson shows include acrylic barriers between staff and visitors; health screenings for employees; social distancing seating charts; and modifications to intermissions, meet and greets and concessions. A comprehensive list of Branson’s safety measures can be found on Explore Branson’s website.

“As a chamber of commerce and convention and visitors bureau, our organization took the leadership role of bringing our businesses together based on our local health department guidelines and mandates by the governor of Missouri,” Neimeyer said. “The visitors we’ve had — groups and individuals — have been so appreciative of the steps we’ve taken.”

Neimeyer said something that often sets Branson apart from other theater destinations is how guests can get up-close and personal with the performers. With new social distancing measures, however, those things aren’t happening right now.

“It’s a shame, because that’s a reason why Branson is so popular — that up-close, personal contact and connection,” she said.

As expected, many tour operators cancelled trips to Branson this past spring and summer, but many rescheduled their trips to the fall and Christmas season.

“Tour groups are still coming; numbers are looking good for fall and Christmas and we have our fingers crossed that they’ll stay that way,” Neimeyer said. “We’re all bending over backward to help groups, but Branson is that way, anyway. That is not something new for us. We know how to treat our groups and they appreciate it.” 417-243-2105, explorebranson.com

Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Columbia, Maryland

Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Columbia, Md.
Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography

For more than 40 years, Toby’s Dinner Theatre has produced professional, theater-in-the-round productions for group tour guests, along with a buffet-style dinner. The theater has been closed since mid-March.

“At this time, we still have not received official word as to when we can reopen,” said Cheryl Clemens-Everidge, sales and marketing for Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “We will re-open once our area officials deem that it is safe. We want tour operators/planners to feel safe to make reservations and plans to visit us in the coming future and for them to know that we will work with them. This is an ever-changing situation and we must remain flexible.”

Toby’s Dinner Theatre can normally seat 300 guests. When the theater re-opens, Clemens-Everidge said the occupancy will be much less, most likely allowing for at least 6 feet between tables. Other planned safety protocols include a plated meal, instead of the traditional buffet, hand sanitation stands in the lobby and near restrooms, and minimizing lobby traffic during intermissions.

“I think that when tours start to re-open, we are going to be looking at much smaller groups,” Clemens-Everidge said. “We will still keep the groups on the motorcoach before taking them directly to their seats to minimize people gathering in our lobby. Even though their meal experience may be changed slightly for the time being, their evening entertainment experience will still be top notch!” 410-730-8311, tobysdinnertheatre.com

Medieval Times, multiple locations

Credit: Medieval Times

After a day of sightseeing, performances or travel, a visit to a Medieval Times castle immerses groups in the Middle Ages. Inspired by an 11th-century feast and tournament, Medieval Times is a two-hour dinner show complete with a four-course meal, live-action musical score, jousting knights and Andalusian horses. Medieval Times has 10 locations, known as castles.

“Our Orlando, Atlanta, Dallas and Scottsdale castles are open,” said Kristen Schascheck, vice president of sales at Medieval Times. “In our other six locations, we are still monitoring each state’s guidelines and have not yet announced our re-opening dates.”

Medieval Times has made some enhancements to its show experience, including social distancing, castle cleanliness and new health protocols. All guests over the age of six years old will have a temperature check before entering the castle and must wear a mask/face covering. A full list of changes can be found on the Medieval Times website.

“Like our operator partners, we believe that group travel provides life enhancing (and changing) experiences for students and adults alike,” Schascheck said. “We’ve been honored to be a part of thousands of itineraries for 30+ years and are committed to helping bring travel and tourism back to our communities. As each castle opens, our teams will be ready to safely welcome your groups, share in the fun and revelry of the tournament, and make amazing memories for our guests.”

Medieval Times is encouraging and accepting any and all feedback from tour operators as travel and tourism continue to rebound.

“We are taking all of their awesome feedback and requests and creating a catalog of educational elements and exemplary video content to enhance groups’ in-person visits and create opportunities for digital engagement,” Schascheck said. medievaltimes.com