Attendance to cultural centers is on the decline, but data suggest that forward-facing organizations may see improvements by 2020. Here’s why.
Overall, data suggest that attendance to visitor-serving organizations is in a general state of decline relative to population growth – and this may suggest a problem with the current visitor-serving organization business model. For organizations that fail to adapt their engagement strategies to respond to emerging audiences, there’s abundant reason to believe that their attendance levels may continue to stagnate or decline. However, data suggest that those organizations willing to evolve their thinking about emerging audiences and access programming stand to benefit by overcoming the negative substitution trends that are currently depressing attendance. There is a reasonable expectation that evolutionary, agile organizations will experience sustained increases in attendance as this century enters its second decade.
Here’s what your organization needs to know about negative substitution, acculturation, and access programming opportunities…and how they are shaping the future of visitor engagement:
1) Negative substitution of audiences is affecting attendance (and it is happening NOW)
While the US population continues to grow, the historic audiences of visitor-serving organizations (i.e. those audiences with the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate a propensity to visit) have been in a state of general decline. One of the reasons for this circumstance is the negative substitution of audiences. Negative substitution is quantified by a deficiency of “replacements” for the historic visitors who exit our markets. For every one person who exits the market, there is fewer than one person to replace him/her.
Currently, for every one high-propensity visitor to visitor-serving enterprise that leaves the market (through death, relocation, or migration), only 0.948 similar high-propensity visitors are entering the market (typically via birth or relocation). When people leave the market without a sufficient number of “replacements,” we have negative substitution.
Why is this happening? For one, affluent, educated white people (i.e. historic audiences) are having fewer children and/or getting older and/or relocating to emerging markets, and visitor-serving organizations on the whole have yet to sufficiently cultivate the engagement of a newer kind of high-propensity visitor. In other words, on the whole, we’ve done a relatively poor job becoming places where emerging audiences (e.g. millennials, Latinos, etc.) feel comfortable declaring “This place is for people like me.” We refer to this as attitude affinity – a perceptual measurement of if a particular market segment believes that an organization is welcoming to them.
Incidentally, emerging audiences (most commonly Latino and other historically underserved populations) are playing a major role in population growth. Historically “underserved” audiences are increasingly the mainstream audiences of the future…and failure to cultivate their engagement may risk a generational alienation from our organizations.
Ultimately, this downward trend demonstrates the failure of access programming within visitor-serving organizations. If the past few decades of access-motivated initiatives had been successful, then we would not be experiencing negative substitution. Instead, we would have cultivated these audience members to become our current visitors. Demographers and researchers have been writing about this inevitability for some time. If our programming had proven responsive to this opportunity, then we would be experiencing audience visitation that increases alongside population growth. That’s not what’s happening.
2) Misunderstanding access programming jeopardizes long-term sustainability
Many organizations incorrectly consider “access” primarily in terms of affordability. If simply offering a reduced admission was a cure-all to access issues, then very few organizations would still have underserved audiences at all. The presence of a continually underserved audience indicates the failure of an organization’s access programming. In the past, organizations could perhaps put access issues on the back burner and get it away with it – there were enough traditional high-propensity visitors to support the organization. However, as the traditional market shrinks and historically underserved audiences grow to become an increasing majority, the issue of access can’t be de-prioritized any longer. The future well-being of many visitor-serving organizations hinges on their ability to connect with these audiences. The reality is that effective access programming engenders trial and usage by cultivating new audiences as eventual regular visitors – an organization’s lifeblood. Access isn’t primarily about price. It’s about eliminating every barrier to engagement.
Do the data suggest letting everyone visit for free? No. Of course not. The data indicate that time is more valued than money for the vast majority of audiences. A person thinking about visiting a zoo on a Saturday in June is very unlikely to delay their visit until a Tuesday in November simply because of cost.
Access programming is significantly less about affordability than strategic sustainability. This is where organizations are being inappropriately emotional about business matters, and misguided ideas about “affordability” are lessening the solvency of some organizations. Today, there exists compelling, data-informed science that suggest that cost is overstated as the primary barrier to engagement (schedule reliably trumps cost). Think of it this way: If $34.95 proves unaffordable to select audiences, so will $24.95 or $29.95…or any other realistic “discount” from the general admission basis. In terms of true affordability, nearly any price diminishes the visitation potential for our most affordability challenged audiences.
Price is not panacea when it comes to affordability. And affordability is not antidote for access. Price is a revenue optimization tool that provides organizations with the resources to support access programming that, in turn, cultivates the engagement of future audiences.
If you want to be relevant to the audience of tomorrow, you better be working to engage them today.
3) Acculturation improves future outlook (provided organizations update engagement models)
But there’s hope! Check out this graph from IMPACTS. It demonstrates substitution ratios derived from a predictive modeling process for US visitor-serving organizations. The Y-axis indicates the antecedent term (the first value) in the substitution ratio. Thus, an antecedent term <1.00 indicates negative substitution – for every one person exiting the market, there is less than one person to replace them.
Why does the trend improve in the future? Acculturation. Emerging audiences tend to adopt “mainstream” behaviors over time – including, potentially, engaging with visitor-serving organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts centers, etc.
Think of the observed differences between first, second, and third generation immigrants to the US. For example, the first generation of immigrants may not speak the language, may have gone to school overseas, may tend to live in clusters of like ethnicities, etc. The next generation was born and raised in the United States – and may be more acculturated than their parents…but still retain certain behaviors due to household customs (English as Second Language, etc.). However, the third generation tends to be even more acculturated, with fewer traces of “old country” behaviors.
Because population growth is being driven by births of second and third generation Americans, acculturation represents a tremendous opportunity to engage these emerging audiences – provided, of course, that organizations have cultivated a relationship with these audiences before they enter the mainstream. Significant research indicates that relationships with brands are often cast during a person’s early, formative years – a failure to cultivate the engagement of a less acculturated first or second generation audience member may effectively preclude the future engagement of a fully acculturated third generation audience member.
The good news about this data? Organizations that intelligently and diligently evolve their engagement models during this critical time stand to benefit from the positive impacts of acculturation in the near future. The perhaps challenging news? Organizations will need to be thoughtful and actively evolving before 2020 (i.e. the predicted “tipping point” in the audience acculturation projections) so as to cultivate the support of these future audiences before they enter the mainstream market.
This isn’t a “Let’s just wait until 2020 to get serious” situation. This is a “If you start thinking strategically and work hard now, then you’ll see a payoff in 2020” situation.
Interestingly (and unsurprisingly), technology accelerates acculturation. This means, of course, that utilizing digital platforms and cultivating real-time communications with emerging audiences is critical for organizations. This is also another compelling reason for leaders to listen to PR and social media staff members throwing around the word “innovation.” In many ways, the industry doesn’t need to “pivot” (that mindset created many of the challenges that visitor-serving organizations are facing today) – it needs to reset.
Organizations that invest in cultivating more strategic “access” models today will be able to take advantage of the engagement benefits suggested by the predicted acculturation trends. Yet again, the time-proven lesson proves true: You reap what you sow.