Here’s what’s happening and what it means for museums and performing arts entities.
No, it doesn’t necessarily mean that organizations are not “doing a good job with families.” There’s more going on here – and the implications may be critical for organizations to thrive in the long-term.
Families with children are an important audience for cultural organizations. After all, over 60% of people who have visited museums or performing arts organizations in the past two years attended these types of entities as children. (And over 70% of recent theater-goers!)
Children represent the leaders of the future – our nation’s upcoming innovators, scientists, politicians, CEOs, teachers, thinkers, and community members. They shape what the world will become, and engaging this audience is a part of many organizations’ missions.
This said, the percentage of adults visiting cultural organizations with children is on the decline.
Overall, the percentage of people visiting with children has declined by 12.5% in the 12-year duration spanning year 2006 through year 2017.
These data are from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and they indicate the percentage of guests visiting with children under 18 in 2006 (orange) compared to 2017 (blue).
If you’ve been noticing a decline in the percentage of families visiting your organization, your entity is not alone.
What is going on? What are cultural organizations doing wrong?!
In fact, the decline in the percentage of adults visiting with children makes perfect sense given the smaller percentages of households with children in the United States.
Today, there are 1.76x more US households without children than there are US households with children.
Consider these three findings:
(1) The percentage of US households with children has declined from 50.9% with children in 1970 to 36.2% with children in 2017. The decline can be observed in the chart above.
(2) The average household size in the US has declined from 3.24 people per household to 2.58 people in 2017. The number of US households has grown from 63.4 million in 1970 to 126.2 million in 2017. Also, in the same duration, the US population has grown from 205.1 million persons in 1970 to 325.7 million persons in 2017. This means that the average household size in the US has also declined – from 3.24 people per household in 1970 (205.1 million people / 63.4 million households = 3.24 people per household) to 2.58 people per household in 2017 (325.7 million people / 126.2 million households = 2.58 people per household).
(3) While the number of US households with children increased by 41.5% from 1970 to 2017, the number of US households without children increased by 258.8% in the same duration. In terms of raw numbers, in 1970, there were 32.3 million US households with children (63.4 million households x 50.9% household with children = 32.2 million US households with children) and 31.1 million US households without children. In 2017, there were 45.7 million US households with children (126.2 million households x 36.2% households with children = 45.7 million US households with children) and 80.5 million households without children.
All of this is a quantitative way of saying that visitor-serving organizations haven’t necessarily been doing a poor job of engaging households with children when they observe a trend suggesting lessening onsite engagement of these same audiences! Their attendance is simply responsive to the realities of the marketplaces.
“Not for adults” is a perceptual barrier to visitation for some cultural entities
“Alright, so fewer adults with children are visiting cultural organizations. Good to know.”
Not so fast.
Consider this: Over the past few decades, some entities have built their brands around being places primarily for families and children, and the market has heard them. “Not for adults” is a notable barrier to visitation to cultural organizations. For likely visitors to these institutions, it comes in right between safety concerns and generally not feeling welcome at the organization. In other words, this perception is preventing some people from visiting.
Take a look at these data (also) from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. It shows how strongly people believe that certain entity types are primarily for people with children to visit.
This chart is in scalar variables, and while the data do show a positive trend (people feel less strongly that certain entity types are primarily for children than they did in 2006), the numbers still show some cause for concern. The numbers are high enough for some organization types – such as science museums, science centers, and zoos, in particular – to pose a significant barrier to visitation. Of course, a beneficial aim may be to be perceived as offering a positive experience for adults as well.
(With scalar variables in the low 40’s, art museums, symphonies, and theaters indicate disagreement with the phrase. This demonstrates that the public solidly does not generally feel that these entities are primarily for children.)
This information may serve to inform not only visitation expectations for cultural professionals, but also engagement strategies, onsite experiences, and marketing plans.
Data suggest that marketing to adults (not exclusively families) maximizes attendance to cultural entities. For organizations already perceived as welcoming to children, studies shows that marketing to adults and/or couples does not necessarily alienate families. Audiences may already know well that, say, a science center is family-friendly. That it may also serve as a fun date spot for adults? Maybe not.
A beneficial take-away from these data may be to consider messages and programs that would be of interest to adults, if yours is an entity perceived as being primarily for children. While families are a critical audience, it’s important to understand from a business perspective that this audience is shrinking. It may be our responsibility to evolve appropriately, and integrate programs that may engage adult audiences so that organizations may thrive.
A lower percentage of adults visiting with children is not necessarily bad news! It makes sense – particularly in consideration of the prevailing context of US population trends. What would be a bad thing is not adjusting to these new market realities.Our audiences continue to evolve. Our challenge is to continue to evolve in a way that is responsive to our audiences.