To what extent will guests return when cultural organizations reopen? These four factors will help inform your own organization’s near-term volume of visitation.
We’ve been tracking the US public’s intentions to visit cultural organizations for the last eleven weeks thus far. As readers know, we monitor intentions to visit cultural entities within one week, month, three months, six months, one year, and two years (and additionally recognize the option of some folks indicating that they never intend to revisit). There’s good news: Intentions to visit cultural organizations within three months have recovered when compared to this same time last year, and intentions to visit within one month are close to observed historic levels.
But what about intentions to visit cultural organizations within one week? Are people planning to do that?
On the whole, people still do not intend to visit cultural organizations within one week… and that’s probably not surprising. After all, most cultural entities in the US still aren’t open for people to visit next week! It stands to reason that, on the whole, most people probably aren’t planning to visit places that they know are closed. However, as states begin to reopen and some cultural entities even start to welcome visitors through their doors again, the one-week intention to visit metric is rising in importance.
Like other intent to visit metrics, one-week intentions to visit cultural organizations vary by state. IMPACTS is tracking intentions to visit 84 cultural organizations in the United States – ranging from theaters to historic sites to zoos – located across the country. The chart below shows intentions to visit cultural organizations within the next week on May 31, 2019, compared to May 23, 2020. A good way to think of the scalar values shown below is as a measure of the relative certainty of an intended behavior being actualized. A value of “1” would indicate no intentions whatsoever to visit an organization, whereas a reported value of “100” would suggest that the respondent was essentially waiting in line for the doors to open. You can read more about ongoing intent to visit tracking here.
While the difference between a value of seven in 2019 and four in 2020 may not seem significant, it is a major difference in the context of this chart, and largely demonstrates that people in the US do not intend to visit cultural organizations in the next week. In southern states – such as Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina – intentions to visit within the next week are notably higher, but even a difference of one value indicates that one-week intentions to visit have not yet recovered when compared to a similar time last year.
You’ll also observe that the states still largely observing stay-at-home orders have notably low intentions to visit a museum or performing arts organization next week… for obvious reasons.
National one-week intentions to visit cut by state and region can be an important broader signal to aid in understanding conditions around the time of reopening. But’s it’s just that: A signal of how much people in a state or region intend to visit cultural organizations within the next week.
The real question here – the one that entities truly want to know – is this one:
“What are the immediate near-term intentions for people to return to my cultural organization?”
Ah, there it is.
These national and regional signals can be very helpful. But intentions to visit every cultural organization in Ohio, for instance, are not the same – though they may have an average intent to visit value on the whole for the state. The truth is that some organizations are likely to see greater attendance than others upon reopening.
Four factors influencing intentions to visit individual cultural organizations post-COVID-19 restrictions
Let’s take innate interest in your experience out of the equation. Indeed, some organizations may have appealed to more people than others by the nature of their experiences or offerings before these closures. That’s not a new condition to overcome after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Instead, let’s look at this from the perspective of just getting back to where we were before COVID-19 closures.
The recovery of near-term intentions to visit individual cultural organizations will be dependent upon four data-informed factors:
Factor 1: Organization type/experience
The kind of people who visit cultural organizations are the kind of people who visit cultural organizations. The kind of person who plans to visit a theater performance isn’t all that different than the kind of person who plans to visit an aquarium. Often, they are the same person.
But while intentions to visit cultural organizations are recovering, demand for different organization types is changing.
This is not necessarily because people’s interests are changing. We’re not hearing people say, “Meh, I don’t love live theater anymore,” for instance. Instead, the distribution of demand is shifting largely due to the perceived safety of experiences.
We’ve been tracking this metric for weeks, and it’s time for an update. 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.
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.
People do not intend to visit the same organization types at the same levels as pre-coronavirus conditions. Data suggests cultural visitors may opt to attend an entity that allows for freedom of movement (especially if it is outdoors, such as a zoo or historic site), rather than an indoor performing-arts event such as a theater or symphony that involves being stationary in an enclosed space.
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and potential visitors expect changes in operations to prioritize safety. When people think about certain experiences, they may imagine more or less risky environments. As the data suggests, this will impact attendance.
Factor 2: Local perceptions and tolerances
Local tolerances and perceptions surrounding the virus vary across the US – not just by state, but also by county and/or city – making this a particularly tricky or misleading metric to consider regionally.
Why local perceptions and tolerance? Because cultural organizations are more likely to immediately engage locals upon reopening since they require fewer lead days to visit than regional, pan-regional, or national audiences. Because they live close by, these local visitors do not need to plan their trips as far in advance as do tourists. Proximity is likely to matter for many audiences upon re-opening – particularly because re-openings on a local level may not coincide with a national return to air travel, etc.
Organizations and residents alike in some counties are warier than others when considering the implications of reopening. This is dependent upon factors such as how hard the region was hit with the virus, the political stance of local governments and residents, and messaging surrounding the coronavirus within that area. If yours is an area where the coronavirus was/is perceived as a bigger threat, people within the region may be more reluctant to visit within the immediate near-term. This is especially true compared to those living in southern states that did not have nearly the same stay-at-home warnings as others.
Let’s take a look at six anonymized art museums in California to help illustrate the point that there’s even variance within individual states.
“Hold up! Why are you choosing art museums in California?” IMPACTS is monitoring intentions to visit 84 cultural organizations, and other metrics for over 224 organizations in the US in total. We could have chosen historic sites in Virginia, or botanic gardens in Florida, or many other entity types and locations. We chose art museums in California because (1) we wanted to show the same type of organization to get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible, and (2) it’s a big state with many recognizable art museums and regions, so we could show you six unique examples across the state while abiding by our commitment to anonymize the data. All six of these art museums are recognizable institutions of varying sizes, and they all have the words “art” and “museum” in their formal names. (There’s no tricky stuff here!)
Average one-week intentions to visit cultural organizations in the California-Oregon-Washington region has a value of 4. That regional data is helpful for providing broad direction. However, when we look at individual institutions, you can see there are regional differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles in COVID-19 tolerances and perceptions. Historically, organizations A and B have the highest one-week intentions to visit of all contemplated institutions during this time of the year. But despite being in the same state as the others, they currently indicate the lowest intentions to visit.
Local governments, restrictions, community sentiment, and how people within an area are reacting to the virus, on the whole, all play a role in likely attendance to entities within that area. It’s worth noting, for example, that this affects the higher intentions to visit the art museum in San Diego, which differs a bit in political sentiment compared to the other two cities.
“And what about Museum F’s higher intentions to visit compared to other art museums in Los Angeles?” We’re glad you asked…
Factor 3: Top of mind awareness
While it may have been tempting for some organizations to go relatively silent in their communications to achieve some measure of cost savings during COVID-19 closures, data suggests this “strategy” may have consequences upon reopening. This may be especially true if marketing funds were slashed instead of deferred during the time of your COVID-19 closure.
How well an organization performs upon reopening and how much people intend to visit the organization will also depend quite a bit on two factors:
A) How much awareness the organization maintained during the closure and how top-of-mind the organization is when people plan their visit
Good news spoiler alert: Many people are already making their plans and thinking about potential upcoming visits in the coming months. However, it stands to reason that people aren’t likely to plan to visit somewhere they largely forgot exists. During the time of closure, a reasonable goal may have been to maintain awareness of your organization – what it does and how it serves people. Top-of-mind awareness is a related metric that measures how quickly an experience comes to mind when considering leisure activities. Research shows that people are more likely to engage in top-of-mind activities over activities that are not at the forefront of one’s thinking.
Now that we’re already boarded and buckled in, let’s keep our seat on the “California art museums” train to help illustrate the point. The data below contemplates intentions to visit the same six art museums in California alongside their top-of-mind metrics. The data is measured in index values, with values over 100 as the goal. Index values provide us with a way to quantify relativity. For instance, an organization with a top-of-mind value of 120 is reasonably said to be “3x more top-of-mind” when compared to an organization with a top-of-mind value of 40. Entities with top-of-mind values over 100 are proportionately the first leading activities that come to mind when one is contemplating a choice of leisure activities.
As you can see, the organizations that have achieved top-of-mind awareness above 100 also have significantly higher intent to visit metrics. It’s no surprise: People are more likely to visit cultural organizations that remained at the forefront of their minds during the closure.
This is especially true in hyper-competitive markets, just as it was true before the current crisis caused organizations to shutter their doors. It may be particularly valid now that many organizations are fighting to engage a diminished audience pool due to economic factors. Thus, smart audience targeting may be particularly critical.
(B) How effectively an organization is known for preexisting safety measures or emphasizes operational changes taking place
Museum D is the largest and most famous of the bunch, and this is embedded to an extent within its top-of-mind metrics. Entities that are already well known often need to do less to maintain awareness. For example, when you think of an art museum in NYC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is likely one of the first to pop into your brain. These entities might need to do less to remind folks that they exist and may be a good place to visit. But despite Museum D being the most famous and having the highest top-of-mind value, intentions to visit Museum C and Museum F are higher. What gives?
Perceived safety gives.
In addition to being top of mind, awareness of safety measures plays a role.
Museum F is already well known for timed ticketing and limiting its capacity within the building. That’s now a safety bonus for this museum. People may believe that this entity is especially able to enforce social distancing, as this important safety practice right now has already long been baked into its ongoing engagement strategy.
Museum C is located in San Diego rather than Los Angeles or San Francisco. While San Diego is also packed with its share of high-propensity visitors, it is perhaps not perceived with the same “big city stigma” as are the other two locations. In turn, it may not be as perceptually susceptible to virus transmission concerns born of population density. (As previously mentioned, San Diego also has different perceptions and tolerances surrounding the virus than the other two cities, and that plays a role as well.)
The perceived safety of an organization’s experience matters. Letting people know what you’re doing to keep them safe may be a prerequisite to securing attendance upon reopening… and thereafter.
Factor 4: Core audiences/constituencies
Finally, the perceptions and tolerances of the individuals you primarily serve come into play. Even if there is high regional tolerance for coexisting with the coronavirus, individual tolerances may depend upon the people you aim to welcome.
For instance, the average age of an adult visitor to a symphony or orchestra is 61 years old. Some of these individuals – who have been identified as being among potentially more vulnerable populations – may be more cautious about exposure to the virus. They may not even choose to return at all until the experience notably changes or health conditions improve. We also know that families with children are warier of returning to cultural institutions than those who do not have children under 13 in the household.
Let’s return to the example of art museums in California to keep things consistent and demonstrate the trend. Note that the data doesn’t contemplate specifically if they intend to visit with kids, just that they have them in the household. Intentions to visit cultural organizations with children may be lower.
In 2019, intentions to visit our six example museums were similar among households without children, those with children under age 13 in their household, and those with a head of household aged 65 or older. You can see that those aged 65 or older have traditionally indicated slightly lower intentions to visit within one week compared to the other cohorts, suggesting that there may be additional barriers (be they actual or perceptual) to engaging their visit. For example, these individuals may have limited mobility or access to transportation options, and are thus less able to convert a spontaneous thought into an immediate attendance action.
Now that we’ve seen what this looks like during a non-pandemic year, let’s take a look at how things stand as of May 23, 2020, for these same institutions.
Individuals over the age of 65 and people with children in the household have lower intentions to visit than have been historically observed, indicating a potential sensitivity to the virus and the attendant safety risks. Unfortunately, we are generally observing this trend across the board right now for cultural institutions – whether they are art museums or science centers or theaters.
This certainly isn’t to say that intentions to visit among these individuals is nonexistent, as you can see. Very far from it! However, if yours is an organization that welcomes mostly children or individuals over age 65, the trend is likely to impact attendance – at least in the short term. There are also programmatic considerations to help overcome some of these obstacles such as special hours and events. Messages for these audiences on the safety front may prove especially important as well.
National and regional intent to visit research can help your organization understand perceptions and provide signals to help guide your engagement strategy. However, when it comes to near-term intentions to visit and immediate attendance upon reopening, these four factors will combine in ways unique to your organization and its programs and experiences. Attendance expectations will be informed by your organization type and its perceived safety risks, local tolerances and perceptions, how and what your organization has done to communicate safety and maintain awareness, and the sensitivities of your core audiences.
As reopening draws nearer, we encourage organizations to use national and regional data as helpful signals… but also to understand that these four unique factors will be especially helpful for informing expectations upon reopening for individual organizations.
This is an unprecedented time and not all of these factors are within your organization’s control. But there are operational changes and planning that can help your organization adjust based upon key considerations for your region and audiences at the time of reopening. We’ll continue to share intentions to visit and necessary variations as time goes on.
At some point – hopefully soon and safely – intentions to visit within one week may nationally recover.
Organizations will want to be ready when they do.
Here are the COVID-19 data insights for cultural entities that we’ve published to date. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.