You might not guess it, but aquariums serve as the most effective source for spotting industry trends among the cultural organization types.
Here’s why this matters for other cultural organizations.
I spot engagement trends that impact cultural organizations such as museums, botanic gardens, historic sites, performing arts entities, zoos, and aquariums for a living. Because mission execution and financial sustainability are so closely connected, identifying these trends helps cultural organizations to adapt and thrive. To do this, I need to be on the lookout for patterns.
There is a lot of big data coming in from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and I need to be able to efficiently submit data queries that may provide the most helpful insights for executive leaders. Essentially, I need to be a trend hunter.
I have mentioned that millennials are canaries in the coal mine for ongoing engagement trends for audiences. In a nutshell, trends traditionally associated with millennials in terms of visitor-serving organizations – such as social connectivity and unique experiences – increasingly apply to other generations too. This is because these trends are informed not only by the year in which we were born, but the year in which we are alive. When we spot a trend among millennial audiences, it’s often generally an indication that the trend will grow among other audiences as well.
But where do I look to spot major trends in terms of cultural organization types?
Don’t stop reading, art museums and historic sites (and others)!
This article is not about aquariums. This article is about the visitor-serving business models that cultural entities share… and how where they diverge provides a key to the future of other entities.
To be fair, I didn’t discover this “trend cheat” on my own. IMPACTS uncovered this long before I joined the company in 2011. During my first interview, I asked the company CEO why IMPACTS did so much work with art, science, and history museums as well as other types of entities, but seemed to go above and beyond collecting information about aquariums.
“Aquariums generally inform the others,” he said.
Our data does not focus on aquariums any more than it focuses on art museums or science centers. We collect information about a broad range of visitor-serving organization types – and yet, we often still spot trends first within aquariums.
Considering the implications of how different organizations thrive financially can help any cultural type think more strategically about its funds and comparative reliance on the market. Here are the driving reasons why we first spot major engagement trends within aquariums compared to other organization types, and why it may be helpful for other cultural entities to keep tabs on this section of the visitor-serving industry.
1) The U.S. aquarium business model is most motivated by market demand (and not overly dependent on grants, endowments, or government funding)
As a group, aquariums tend to rely least on contributed and dividend revenues when compared to other types of visitor-serving organizations.
Also, after evaluating a representative sample of 224 U.S.-based visitor-serving organizations, data shows aquariums generally have the smallest endowments relative to their annual operating budgets – suggesting that aquariums must be particularly attuned to the market since they have less “cushion” in their revenue streams. As the chart below illustrates, the lack of a “safety net” places a particular financial imperative on aquariums to be responsive to market opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly, US aquariums are most reliant on “the gate” (admission revenue) and other earned revenues (membership, merchandising, etc.). Because of this, they have the most urgent need to continually and consistently evolve to meet market demands. Being most reliant on the gate means that these entities may have a greater incentive to pay close attention to what their visitors expect and value in a visit.
As a group, aquariums feel the impacts of bad decisions more quickly. While it may take some time for an art museum, for instance, to truly feel the strain of a bad investment or an ineffective program due to their endowment “cushion,” aquariums are forced to fail more quickly. Carrying out a board member’s probably-not-impactful pet project “because he said so” generally comes at a greater cost for aquariums than it does for other entities. Comparatively, aquarium projects need to fail faster than experimental projects within other cultural organizations to avoid financial strain.
Because the overall aquarium business model is most motivated by market demand compared to other visitor-serving types, we are able to more easily spot how and where market demand is changing. Indeed, there are certainly other organizations that are especially reliant on earned revenues that are not aquariums. However, on the whole, these conditions make aquariums ripe for spotting trends and things that are working and things that are not.
2) Compared to other organization types, US aquariums are at the center of both for-profit perception and pursuing a social mission
Let’s start with some interesting news: Less than half of the US market is aware that nonprofit cultural organizations are nonprofits – including past visitors!
Like it or not, this is how cultural organizations are perceived. But before you fret too much, consider that while this may not be ideal, this news may not be as bad as you think. There’s indication that an organization fulfilling its mission – regardless of its tax status – is what matters most in securing engagement. (Also note that this is a data update from 2015.)
Cultural organizations have social missions. They generally aim to educate and inspire individuals, communities, and the world. While all museums aim to change the world in some form or fashion, consider that aquariums (and zoos and increasingly botanic gardens) have broadly bitten off a whole lot more “social mission” to chew. Not only are they educating and inspiring audiences, these entities are increasingly tackling conservation – which is an entirely different, additional can of worms (in a compost bin).
Many aquariums (and zoos) regularly invest in active, global social missions that extend beyond education and research. Some rescue and rehabilitate animals, others actively encourage people to vote against single-use plastics, and most need to deal with beloved animals passing away at times. These situations all yield incredible amounts of information about how people relate to visitor-serving organizations that provide insight for entities that need to deal with these issues in different ways and on (comparatively) much smaller scales.
Don’t get me wrong! There’s learning to be done by watching nearly any cultural organization type. Remember when MoMA rearranged its artwork to showcase Muslim artists after the original travel ban? There was a lot to see and learn!
But zoos and aquariums have an additional element of their mission that throws them into the fray. While the social missions and operations of aquariums tackle education and research (two critical items that are also common among other, select visitor-serving organizations), they also take up the battle of conservation. The initiatives attendant to this mission are particularly timely, global, and live in a rather elusive “save the world” space. By watching them, we can better help science centers understand how mission-based projects will influence their reputations, and help art museums understand the impacts of tackling “politicized” topics, for instance. We can do this because we’ve seen and are collecting information about perceptions related to aquariums – who have been comparatively embedded in these conversations for a longer period of time.
Aquarium or not – organizations operating with the imparative of being both market-relevant and “big mission-serving” may be our best models for the future of museums. Not every museum lives on its endowment, and not all aquariums are bringing their A-game to the “save the ocean” effort. Entities are different. As a group, though, some are better for spotting large scale market trends than others.
At IMPACTS, we monitor a large swath of cultural organization types and keep an eye on the perceptions of 224 different organizations. But when I need to spot a trend, or when I think of case studies and examples, I often land on aquariums first because watching them (in addition to others) provides the lessons that help other organizations achieve their similarly aspirational ideals.
This doesn’t mean aquariums are most important or the least. It doesn’t mean that they have it better or worse. It means that their business models are such that they often provide early indicators of trends on the horizon for art museums, theaters, and science centers.
Most of all, I think, it means that the best thing that we can do to help any cultural organization thrive is to always be watching – and to always be learning.
Want to learn more? Next week, my fantastic colleague, Jim Hekkers, will be sharing his top lessons in leading a data-driven organization. He’ll touch on some of the early data in his work with Monterey Bay Aquarium, and trends that the organization was able to spot before they became common industry conversations. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this site so that you don’t miss it!