This simple misunderstanding may be the root of many cultural organizations’ problems in securing visitation.
Cultural organizations are not successfully welcoming new audiences at representative rates, and thus our business models – on the whole – may benefit from some rethinking. At the heart of the not-keeping-up cultural organization business model may be this simple misconception: That we are trying to get visitors to contribute their money to come in the door.
The truth is, cultural organizations are not (primarily) asking for money when they aim to secure visitation. Cultural organizations are asking for an investment of time – and that is much more complicated and a bigger ask than many leaders may realize. I’ve shared data, created videos, and written a great deal on the economic realities of admission cost not being anything near the end-all-be-all barrier to visitation that cultural organizations believe it to be.
Do you know what IS more of that end-all-be-all barrier to visitation? Time.
Focusing on admission cost as a primary barrier to visitation may be more comfortable than considering issues that might mean that we need to work harder or rethink “business as usual” – such as opportunities related to program relevance or the need to increase marketing budgets. Instead, a misguided focus on admission cost as a primary barrier is a big distraction from the bigger issues facing museums, performing arts organizations, and other cultural organizations today.
Perhaps if cultural organizations can get a better grasp on what they are truly asking of their audiences when they aim to secure visitation, then they can better create programs and spark conversations that overcome the more data-informed barriers to visitation.
1) Time is more valuable than money
This is true for people in general, but it’s especially true for those folks who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations. These data come from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. Obviously, if time was perceived as significantly more important than money, then these values would be under 50 – but none of them are. Not one.
And no, folks, not even for millennials. It’s convenient to think that millennials, given their financial difficulties, may be less likely to value their time over their money, but it’s not true. In fact, millennials spend money on experiences and are said to be fueling the experience economy in the United States.
For likely and less likely visitors alike, time is more valuable than money. This is the first step in realizing our need to change the conversation: Cultural organizations must primarily seek to be worthy of a person’s time.
2) Schedule is the primary influencer of visitation
What is the top influencer in the decision to engage in a leisure activity? It doesn’t change for a likely visitors or the population at large: It’s schedule. Schedule drives visitation to cultural organizations and nobody seems to be talking about it.
Schedule means being open and having programs during the dates and times that people can actually attend. Makes sense, right? If the orchestra starts at 6pm but the school play runs into that time, it’s a no-go. If a museum is only open during the hours in which people are at work, folks are less likely to rearrange their schedule to visit.
Other items on this list that relate to the investment of time and the reality that time is a non-renewable resource are travel distance, ease of access, and planning convenience.
3) A bad investment of time cannot be directly “reimbursed”
Okay. We see that time is more valuable than money and schedule is the top influencer of the visitation decision. Let’s consider what this means for cultural organizations…
An inconvenient truth: Once time is spent, it cannot be given back. Moreover, experiences may stay with us longer than material purchases– whether good or bad.
First, this makes our “ask” bigger. This information means that we’re not primarily asking for a potential visitor’s money. We’re asking for something more valuable and thus potentially harder to give – their time. When we think we’re asking folks for money and that’s the hardest thing for them to give up, we’re overlooking the reality of the situation. We need to seek to be worthy of their time, and then perceptually worthy of their money. Thinking this is about money more than time can lead to business practices that really hurt the long-term solvency of a cultural organization – like discounting.
Second, this makes our “ask” riskier. Not only are we asking for something more valuable than money when we seek to secure visitation, but we’re also asking folks to trust that we won’t waste this non-renewable resource on a bad experience. Cultural organizations providing “reimbursements” for negative experiences are not providing reimbursements at all. They are attempts to mitigate a loss that cannot be truly replaced. (I’m certainly not saying that reimbursements are a bad idea in some cases, but they aren’t as straightforward as that “money-back guarantee” offered in case you don’t love the dishwashing soap you bought.) This reality means that it’s all the more important for cultural organizations to ensure that they provide valuable and unique experiences.
Third, this means it’s important to realize that our ask is more than time spent onsite. Oof. This point stinks, because cultural organizations don’t control it. If visiting a cultural organization means investing precious time (and it does), then it may be beneficial to consider that this time investment extends beyond time spent onsite. Getting everyone in the car, stopping for gas, waiting in traffic, parking, figuring out where to grab a bite afterwards – these are also investments of time that may come with a cultural experience. Again, the way around this may be to underscore that unique experiences that educate and inspire audiences are worthy of these attendant time investments as well.
4) The primary barriers to visitation are about time, not money.
We spoke about visitation motivation. Now let’s talk visitation barriers. Many people report interest in visiting cultural organizations. However, over 30% of those indicating interest do not actually attend them. What gives? It’s the fact that the time investment is too big, or they prefer to do something else with their precious time.
The actual, data-informed barriers to visitation for cultural organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, symphonies, theater, etc.) are primarily related to the preciousness of time. The top barrier to visitation is one’s preference for another leisure activity (read: a different investment of time) – and the other major barriers revolve around time as well! They are access challenges, believing that there’s nothing new to do or see, and schedule conflicts (work, school, holiday). Cost is ranked the fourteenth biggest barrier to visitation among people who are interested in visiting but don’t!
Time is more valuable than money, folks. And that’s “the ask” that cultural organizations are making of potential visitors. It’s a big one! Sadly, it’s one that cultural organizations risk overlooking in favor of a more convenient distraction that gets comfortably tangled not in matters of economics, but in matters of “feeling”: admission cost.
When cultural organizations understand that we are requesting time and how important this is, we can focus on removing true – but difficult to tackle – barriers like content disinterest. It allows us to focus on relevance and communicating singular, unique experiences.
Time is precious and knowledge is power. Let’s put these two things together to adjust our thinking caps and help cultural organizations create the most effective engagement and solvency strategies possible.