Business Unusual

Business Unusual: A Haunted Victorian Mansion Goes Virtual

This story is part of our Business Unusual series. Each week, we share real stories from small businesses and how they are adapting to a new world of work.

Winchester Mystery House Virtual Tour
When the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, was forced to shut down because of COVID-19, the peculiar landmark was faced with this question: How to be accessible during a pandemic?

It has stairs leading to a ceiling, secret passageways, and doors to nowhere. The infamous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California has welcomed more than 12 million visitors since opening in 1923. It’s a Victorian mansion rumored to be haunted, and it normally attracts curious tourists with ease. But right now, the Bay Area landmark is trying to solve the biggest mystery it’s faced in a century: How to be accessible during a pandemic?

Like small businesses across the globe affected by COVID-19, the team behind the 160-room wonder self-described as “the world’s most bizarre mansion” is trying to keep operations going while being forced to shut doors.

“We have to really reinvent and recreate a new normal — not just here, but all of hospitality and tourism.” 

What can an entertainment site based on physical tours do to continue functioning? The answer for Winchester has been in trusting new technology with virtual tours and expanding its online presence.

“We want to be ready and stay top of mind until we are cleared by Governor [Gavin] Newsom to resume some semblance of [traditional] operations,” Walter Magnuson, general manager of Winchester Mystery House, told Workest. “We have to really reinvent and recreate a new normal — not just here, but all of hospitality and tourism.”

Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The peculiar landmark is offering virtual tours while it’s shutdown during COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House.

On the heels of California’s shelter-in-place mandate in March, the locale quickly turned to a cutting-edge approach. The old labyrinth home — built by wealthy rifle heiress Sarah Winchester over 38 years — partnered with Matterport’s 3D platform to film the state-of-the-art Immersive 360° Tour now available online. And it’s the first time the public has been invited to observe some never-before-seen parts of the estate.

It’s a big and modern move for such a historical site. Luckily, the immediate switch to accommodate shelter-in-place is working. Whereas the in-person guided tours run about an hour, Magnuson says the virtual version — which costs $8.99 — can be done anywhere from your laptop at your own pace. Take a half hour or 20 hours, and log back in whenever you want to see something new.

Magnuson, who was leading about 110 employees before shelter-in-place hit, has now seen his remaining team come together “in a way that we’re all wearing so many different hats right now.”

“People are excited that you can take your time to look at every square foot of each room, the architecture, and all the fixtures.”

Magnuson was skeptical about the ability to capture all the nuances of such an expansive site, but with the coronavirus being the final motivator to fully film the 24,000-square-foot home, he said the results convinced him.

“We were astounded by the level of details they could put into a virtual tour.”

To encourage sales, Winchester is also offering a special thank you to those who support the new tour during shelter-in-place: Current purchase of the Immersive 360° Tour includes a complimentary ticket to visit in person when the destination reopens.

What else can similar businesses do? In addition to virtual tours, Winchester Mystery House is exploring Facebook Live guided events filmed inside the house, during which viewers can ask questions in real time, and it has diversified its portfolio of merchandise available online to include apparel and more.

Magnuson, who was leading about 110 employees before shelter-in-place hit, has now seen his remaining team come together “in a way that we’re all wearing so many different hats right now.”

Winchester Mystery House Stairs to Nowhere

The Winchester Mystery House is a labyrinth, filled with staircases that lead to nowhere, secret passage ways, and doors to nowhere. The peculiar landmark is offering virtual tours while it’s shutdown during COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House.

“To have our marketing coordinator covering security shifts and our folks doing janitorial — everyone is really pitching in and really showing their incredible passion for maintaining this estate during this challenging time.”

Magnuson’s biggest tip for fellow small businesses: Continue to provide your product or services in a manner that makes people feel protected. 

He added that opening up during COVID-19 pre-vaccine will require all businesses to comply with health criteria, because consumer confidence will be more important than ever. With the future of the economy uncharted territory due to the pandemic, each business has to find its own footing with modified practices to fit whatever “new normal” transpires.

Magnuson’s biggest tip for fellow small businesses: Continue to provide your product or services in a manner that makes people feel protected.

“If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to come in the next year or two,” he predicted. “There isn’t going back to the good ol’ days where you crowd around a bar. Create a product that generates revenue safely and in compliance. … We want to get back out there, but we want to do it safely.”

The general manager concluded with nostalgia for Winchester Mystery House’s legacy: “We have been here for 97 years and we plan to be here for the next 97 years.”

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