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Chicago galleries test out restaurant reservation app to bring in business

After a months-long shut down of in-person visits, a group of dealers have turned to online reservation systems initially built to support restaurants

Visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Photography can reserve a time slot via Tock.

The “new normal” of life during the pandemic has forced businesses into an innovate-or-else mentality. The changes that galleries have put into place, specifically with the reservation systems, have not only presented a way to keep clients and visitors coming through the doors, but have also led to improvements in the gallery experience, according to some owners.

In the months during initial lock-down efforts in Chicago, a group of gallery owners began holding regular Zoom meetings to try to figure out the best way to stay afloat and work together. The group took notice from friends in other industries including those in the restaurant world, decided to reach out to Tock, a new restaurant reservation system, to see if they could incorporate a reservation system into the gallery re-opening.

It was not long before a handful of other galleries joined on and as of early August, ten galleries and museums in the city were using the service, with more expected to partner in the coming weeks, according to Nick Kokonas, the chief executive of Tock. Current galleries using the platform include the Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Document Gallery, Patron Gallery, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Photography and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

“Gallery openings were always in the back of my mind because other event programs are not aesthetically appealing or versatile,” Kokonas says. “With Covid-19 making even everyday visits more challenging, Tock is a natural fit to help manage reservations, tours, openings, and other events.”

The company launched the art space pilot in Chicago and due to its early success, has started conversations with galleries in other cities across the world including in New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Belgium.

“It seems to work for other industries, so let’s give it a try and wow it seems to be working,” says Emanuel Aguilar, who opened Patron Gallery in Chicago’s River West neighbourhood five years ago.

"Galleries were made for social distancing," says Aguilar of Patron Gallery, where Alice Tippet's "Pallid Carrier" exhibition remains on view through 29 August. Photo by Evan Jenkins. Courtesy of the artist and Patron Gallery

The app has benefited galleries in two ways, according to Aguilar. First, it gives clients and visitors a sense of security knowing they will be the only guests in the space when they arrive, and secondly it gives the galleries a better idea of who to expect each day.

“If we know a collector is coming in we will be able to adjust the showroom or adjust the way we are presenting to that specific person,” Aguilar says. Since galleries have gone to an appointment-only model, the use of app services means they can staff appropriately knowing who will be there at any given time. “Gallery business models were made for social distancing,” Aguilar adds.

Galleries pay a set fee of $199 or $699 per month with no per-guest costs to use Tock, which automates all appointments and includes integrations with Google and social media platforms.

But Tock is not the only app dining out on gallery’s need of simple reservation systems. In July, See Saw, the New York-based app that was created as a mapping platform for galleries and exhibitions in major cities around the world, created an appointment system within the app that more closely resembles those of restaurant reservation platforms.

The app, which has been around for more than six years, added a request an appointment button to its listings in March which at the time created a simple email prompt for visitors to contact the galleries themselves. That service was a flop, so they took it a step further.

“Around mid-March all of the sudden every gallery was appointment only so we had no choice other than to try to adapt,” says Ellen Swieskowski, who founded the app with her brother in 2014. “We want to make it easy for anyone to visit galleries, we always had this idea of who is really going to make an appointment? That’s so daunting for the general public. If you are going to visit a restaurant, you aren’t going to send them an email asking for available times.”

The future for galleries is unclear, but Swieskowski says she envisions galleries will likely move to a hybrid model in the all being open for regular hours while also taking appointments.

“I think this fall foot track is going to really pick up in galleries, partially because people want to get back out and see art and, in my mind, it’s one of the safest outings you can do right now,” she says. “You go into the gallery, you don’t have to touch anything. You aren’t eating. You keep your mask on, and with appointments you also have contact tracing.”