Attendance to cultural organizations – from science centers to art museums to aquariums to symphonies – is not keeping pace with population growth. Here’s what leaders need to know.
It’s no secret: More cultural organizations in the US are experiencing flat or declining attendance than are experiencing attendance growth. Of the 224 visitor-serving organizations contemplated in the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (NAAU), 151 organizations (67%) report flat or declining attendance when compared to year 2009 attendance levels – and that’s noteworthy! Based on population growth alone during the same duration, shouldn’t attendance have increased when compared to ten years ago?!
Looking at broader trends confronting site-specific leisure activities, this may not be entirely surprising. Movie theaters experienced a 25-year low in attendance in 2017, and sporting events have taken a major hit as well. When it comes to cultural organizations, however, there are some important things for leaders to know.
Attendance is not keeping pace with population growth.
Most cultural organizations tout success by reporting performance against the previous year’s attendance to newspapers and mainstream media outlets. This number paints a distorted picture of an organization’s performance because it ignores an inconvenient reality: population growth.
If a city’s population grows, then attendance should increase as a natural function of that growth as well. A shop on a busy street with many people walking by should have more folks walking in the door than if it were on a desolate road, shouldn’t it? After all, more means more!
Good news: The US population increased 7% in the last ten years.
According to the US Census Bureau, the US population increased by 7% from 305.5 million to 327 million people in the ten-year duration spanning 2009-2018. A big portion of that increase has taken place within major metro markets such as New York and Los Angeles.
Thankfully, the US has also experienced growth in the percentage of the people who profile as “high-propensity visitors.” These are the folks who have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes to suggest they would visit a cultural organization such as an aquarium, museum, or theater. This group includes both those who do actively visit and folks who have interest but do not visit.
As you can see below, the percentage of high-propensity visitors in a sample of major US markets has increased since 2009. For example, during the analyzed duration, the percentage of these folks has grown by 11.3% in Washington, DC; 7.8% in Dallas-Ft. Worth; and 3.4% in New York City! Knowing how much the US population has grown overall is helpful for cultural organizations – but knowing how much the US population has grown in terms of people who profile as likely visitors helps entities better understand their opportunities for engagement.
Bad news: Attendance to US cultural organizations declined 2.7%.
Since 2009, the percentage of people who have attended any cultural organization in the US has decreased by 2.7% in the United States.
This measurement provides an honest snapshot of our industry, and like most honest snapshots, it’s spectacularly inconvenient. The data shows the decline in actual pairs of feet that come in the door, not the number of times that doors swing. In other words, instead of adding up raw attendance numbers from individual organizations (which often double-count individuals because the kind of people who go to cultural organizations are the kind of people who go to cultural organizations), this represents an ongoing metric of what percentage of individuals attend cultural organizations. And that percentage has declined in the last ten years.
Given that our industry (often innocently and unknowingly) artificially inflates attendance numbers by adding up every door swing instead of considering individual people and conveniently overlooking population growth, it’s amazing that there are any media outlets able to catch attendance declines! The fact that there are so many articles championing increasing attendance despite these number manipulating methods may be telling of our willingness to look the other way in the face of major challenges facing the cultural industry business model.
But our industry is used to counting attendance this way! In fact, it’s how most visitor-serving enterprise calculate visitation.
These data manipulations – however unintentional – may be doing us more harm than good. Let’s look at the same data cut another way so we can view cultural organization performance against expectation.
Take a look at the population of Atlanta: The Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) high-propensity visitor population increased by 10.4% between 2009 and 2018. During the same duration, visitation to the assessed Atlanta-area organizations witnessed an attendance decline of 3.9%. That’s bad. If engagement were keeping pace with population growth, an organization with an annual (hypothetical) attendance of 1,000,000 in year 2009 would have reasonably expected to welcome 1,104,000 visitors in year 2018. Instead, on average, the organizations in the area saw attendance decline from the baseline (theoretical) 1,000,000 visitor level in year 2009 to 961,000 visitors in year 2018. Measured against the expectations borne of population growth, visitor engagement underperformed by 143,000 visitors! The expectation for successful organizations would be for attendance to increase alongside population growth – otherwise, it is indicative of underperforming the opportunity.
Considered in the context of expected visitation growth due to population increases, cultural organizations in the US are underperforming the opportunity by nearly 10%.
What is going on here?!
There are a few factors at play, but these three may be among the most significant:
1) The US is growing increasingly diverse in people who do not look, think, or behave like the historic cultural visitor.
US cultural organizations are experiencing a phenomenon called the negative substitution of the historic visitor. High-propensity visitors fall into two categories: active/historic visitors, and inactive visitors. Active/historic visitors are “traditional visitors.” They are the people who have visited any cultural organization within the last two years. These folks are generally well-to-do, educated, and – above all – they are white non-Hispanic individuals. The percentage of people who profile as historic visitors in the US is shrinking.
But there’s good news! Inactive visitors are also in the high-propensity visitor category. These are folks who have a similar profile to active visitors, but have not visited a cultural organization in the last two years. These folks are our opportunity – and they are more diverse than our historic visitors.
2) Competition for leisure time is steep.
Cultural organizations have a growing competitor: The couch. People increasingly prefer to stay home during a week or weekend without commitments. It’s easier to do than ever before! We can get groceries without leaving our homes, do our banking without leaving our homes, and even “see” grandma without leaving our homes. This makes the battle to motivate visitation that much fiercer: We need to make our experiences worthy of putting on pants.
Not only that, the top reason why those with interest do not attend cultural organizations is that they simply prefer an alternative activity. Time is precious! These are opportunities for creating relevant and engaging experiences – not to mention smart marketing.
3. Organizations are better than ever at engaging the same people.
Research shows that cultural organizations are more successful than ever at reaching historic visitors. This is great! It’s more than great – it’s fantastic! Audience research has helped organizations create programs and experiences that satisfy historic visitors. This is great news for membership programs, which may be more important than ever before.
Unfortunately – as we’ve discussed – long-term survival largely depends upon reaching new audiences. Moreover, an industry increase in re-visitation makes “counting the number of times the door swings” even more problematic. It means organizations that only count door swings are likely to have very little idea how well they are actually engaging new audiences. Or worse – they may falsely believe that they are great at it when what they are actually great at is getting people to return. (Success in strengthening affinity is critical, but it’s different than expanding audiences.)
No doubt about it: Cultural organization attendance is not generally keeping pace with population growth. But there’s reason to have hope that the great brains leading our industry will drive success over time! Entities are getting smarter about data and research, and more and more leaders seem to be challenging traditional thinking by asking hard questions about our audiences and what they really want and expect. Moreover, we have a whole host of inactive visitors to get busy engaging!
There is an opportunity to welcome more visitors and keep better pace with population growth. The first step, perhaps, is to stop turning a blind eye to the reality of the challenges facing the cultural sector.
It’s tough to see, but when we better understand the reality, we can can create better solutions to reverse the trend.
We can do this, and we will.
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