Demand for cultural entities upon reopening isn’t necessarily increasing or decreasing. Instead, it’s being redistributed between organization types.
We are closely monitoring when people are next planning to visit cultural organizations, including museums and performing arts entities. This metric is known as “intent to visit,” and it helps cultural executives understand the likely duration that the current COVID-19 outbreak will impact their visitors’ planning cycles and attendance patterns. This information is particularly critical for informing marketing strategies and communications right now.
Research shows that people expect to largely return to their more usual attendance patterns within three months, with a full return to “normalcy” within six months. That’s good news. But it also begs an important followup question:
Will people return to their normal visitation patterns equally for all cultural entities?
We’re hearing a lot of internal industry chatter circulating about attendance behaviors when doors reopen. Some people suggest that pent-up demand will create an attendance boom (“We’re all antsy to leave our homes!”), while others warn that entities will reopen to meager crowds with forever changed visitation patterns due to sustained fears about the virus.
The data-informed truth is that – were organizations to open their doors today – both outcomes would be true depending on the type of cultural enterprise.
While intentions to visit cultural entities show an expected return to essentially normal behaviors within three to six months, research shows that these intentions are not divided equally among organization types.
Demand for cultural enterprise will not be (at least immediately) distributed as it was pre-coronavirus
It is not possible to foretell the future, but it is possible for data science to inform likely outcomes. To that end, IMPACTS collected data from 2,299 US adults who profile as active visitors to cultural enterprise to better understand how likely they are to return to their normal, pre-coronavirus behaviors once the current gathering restrictions have been removed.
We asked people the following question: On a scale of 1 to 100, where a response of 1 means “a significant decrease in my likelihood of visiting,” a response of 50 means “the same” or “no change in my likelihood of visiting,” and a response of 100 means a “significant increase in my likelihood of visiting”: How likely are you to visit a(n) [organization type] after the current coronavirus-related restrictions are removed and you are able to resume your normal activities?
A response of 50 indicates no change whatsoever in intended future visitation behaviors. In essence, people responding 50 intend to engage with the indicated organization type as they would if COVID-19 never existed. Any response greater than 50 indicates a proportionately higher level of demand for a type of organization. Inversely, any response less than 50 indicates proportionately lessened demand for an organization.
This research does not necessarily mean that people prefer to visit botanic gardens more than symphonies. Instead, this research measures how likely people are to return to their normal, pre-coronavirus behaviors. It means that people whose normal behavior is to go to symphonies report being less likely to return to the symphony after the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. It means people whose normal behavior is to go to botanic gardens may be more likely to visit than usual after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“But how can overall intentions to visit cultural entities be expected to recover within six months when some people are more likely to visit some entities than others?” This is because the people who visit cultural organizations are the people who visit cultural organizations. A person who enjoys live theater has an increased propensity to also be a person who enjoys a historic site. People may anticipate returning fully to their normal cultural engagement behaviors, but they may not retain the likelihood to visit the same specific types of organizations (at least not in the immediate near-term). In other words, the near-term demand for onsite cultural engagement is likely to be redistributed away from some organization types and towards others.
People will still intend to leave their homes to go to a museum – but they may be more likely to visit an art museum than a science center (at least for a while) in a post-coronavirus world.
A) Cultural experiences that allow for relative freedom of movement – and particularly those that feature outdoor spaces – may benefit most from increased demand
The research currently shows increased demand for public parks, museums, zoos, aquariums, and public beaches when coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted. The “public parks” category takes the cake for increased demand. This category additionally contemplates botanic gardens, historic sites (think Gettysburg National Military Park), and other destinations perceived to offer significant outdoor space. Zoos are also notably perceived as having a great deal of outdoor space. Needless to say, public beaches are also part of our great outdoors.
These entities may have a particular draw because they are most easily enjoyed while adhering to social distancing practices. The weather is also generally getting warmer this time of year, potentially increasing both the ability and desire to visit these entities when restrictions are lifted. Awareness of the spring break time period – regardless of if plans have been canceled due to the pandemic – may remain very much on people’s minds, as well as warmer summer months ahead.
The increased demand for art, history, and other types of museums (excluding science and children’s museums – more on this later) likely also relates to the perception that these experiences are largely self-navigated and could be possible to visit without close contact with crowds…not to mention a panacea for the cabin fever currently afflicting so many of us!
The indicated demand is promising for these organizations, but it is not a promise. These findings suggest the potential payoff of maintaining top-of-mind awareness right now and engaging in active messaging. How much of this demand is realized by individual organizations depends on what they do to maintain awareness during this period of business interruption.
B) Experiences involving enclosed spaces with minimal visitor movement – such as performing arts enterprise – indicate lessened demand
This is disappointing, but it’s not altogether surprising. Consider that the first gathering opportunities to be shuttered or postponed were those that group many people in more or less confined spaces, such as conferences and concerts. (I’ll address sports arenas specifically in point D.) With restrictions on the number of people in the same space so heavily publicized, the message may still resonate even after restrictions are lifted.
We’ll have more specific data on the key aspects influencing the decreased desire to visit performing arts entities in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it stands to reason that people may be apprehensive to spend time confined to a smaller space with several other people, as it may increase the perceptual risk of contracting COVID-19.
C) Entities perceived to offer tactile experiences – such as science centers – are also at risk
Most industry insiders wouldn’t dare conflate science museums and science centers, but research shows that that the US public cannot reliably distinguish between the two. When we ask folks about the last science center they visited, they may name a science museum. When we ask people about their favorite science museum, they may name a science center. “Science museum” is often an overarching categorization for both types of organizations.
A key factor contributing to the current diminished demand to visit science museums (as well as the initial research we have concerning children’s museums) is that these entities are often perceived as providing predominately tactile experiences. When people think about them, they may imagine the need to touch things to fully enjoy them. During a time in which we are reminded to constantly wash our hands, it stands to reason that high-touch experiences may pose a perceived level of heightened risk to people.
This is a difficult issue, as these entities often underscore the importance of play and may use phrases such as “hands-on learning.” This is frequently baked into the science center business model – and in a pre-coronavirus time, it was a unique differentiator that may have proven beneficial for these entities.
D) Audience susceptibility to the virus may play an important role in attendance decisions
Take a look at the public’s only slightly diminished demand for sporting events held in stadiums and arenas. What’s going on here? Sporting events were also identified early as a risk for spreading COVID-19. After all, that’s why major sporting events are being canceled or postponed, isn’t it?
The relatively modest decline in demand to attend a sporting event may be due to the audience that attends them. Remember that the data contemplate returning to what were “normal” leisure activities for people. Generally, the crowds filling sports arenas are predominately young and male – the winning demographic combination shown to believe that they are… well, more invincible than other people.
Moreover, sports seasons are often of a discrete duration – there are only so many games to attend before the season ends. The perception of limited opportunities to participate in an event may contribute to a sense of urgency that changes the risk calculus for attendees.
Symphonies, on the other hand, tend to attract a more senior crowd. With an average age of 61 for orchestra and symphony-goers in the US (compared to average ages of 37 for museum attendees and 33 for zoo visitors, respectively), this audience is one of the oldest amongst visitor-serving enterprise types. These individuals may be both perceptually and medically among the most susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.
The perceived health risks for a more vulnerable population – coupled with the crowd density factors attendant to a concert experience – do not portend well for near-time demand for orchestras and symphonies that play indoors. At least, not at the moment.
Could these findings change?
You bet. In fact, they probably will.
We will publish an update to this data set on Wednesday, April 8 in order to keep an eye on this moving target.
What if yours is a performing arts organization or touch-based museum?
Here’s the bright side – and yes, I think there is one: There’s time to devise a strategy to help your organization mitigate and/or alleviate concerns upon reopening.
People do not intend to visit cultural organizations within the next month (and most are closed or have suspended programming anyway). This moment of pause provides organizations with the grace of perspective and the ability to diligently consider the data.
These findings do not necessarily represent a “forever” condition; instead, they provide valuable insight into the perceptual barriers that entities may face when they reopen. In turn, this knowledge allows them to strategically develop messaging and operational responses to nip negative perceptions in the bud before the restrictions have been lifted.
Maybe it’s lowering the capacity of the theater for a while and seating people in every other chair. Maybe it’s highlighting permanent exhibits that aren’t reliant upon touching things. Maybe it’s a whole host of other operational changes and messages to show that you’re responsive to concerns and putting the safety of guests first.
Remember, the world is frantically seeking a treatment or vaccination that may soon alter demand to visit these entities. People may be even more antsy over time to leave their homes, and experience a greater build-up in their likelihood to engage with cultural organizations. Findings may yet evolve (for better or worse) when we post an update to this chart on April 8th.
A goal is to take this information – and a deep breath – and consider how we might leverage it to inform our strategy upon reopening.
Things are evolving, and we will continue to keep you posted.
Here are the COVID-19 data insights for cultural entities that we’ve published thus far. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.