The pandemic has changed where people want to spend leisure time – and this may represent an opportunity for cultural entities situated outside of major cities.
Museums, zoos, aquariums, and performing arts organizations in big cities tend to draw more visitation than those situated further from major population centers. After all, they are surrounded by experiences like restaurants, shopping, and other cultural enterprises. Major metropolitan areas also tend to attract more out-of-state tourists than more suburban and rural communities, and serve as destinations for state residents humming along to the famous tune while looking to “forget all their cares and go downtown.”
But densely packed places do not have the same leisure destination draw right now as they did in a pre-coronavirus world.
While major cities obviously still represent the most densely populated regions, the pandemic has impacted (1) the places people want to spend their leisure time, (2) how they get there, and (3) how long they stay – at least for now.
For cultural organizations outside of big cities, it may be time to shine.
Let’s talk data.
The three data sets below contemplate US likely visitors’ preferences related to how they choose destinations or attractions for leisure purposes, how they prefer to travel, and how long they prefer to stay when planning a trip. This data is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which currently has over 144,000 respondents.
This data was gathered through a two-part process. First, we collected open-ended responses to various questions, such as “What activities motivate your selection of leisure destinations?” Respondents’ answers to these open-ended questions populated a list of factors for a second question. (This way, we avoid creating an unintentionally skewed list as professionals affiliated with cultural entities.) Once the list was created, we delivered it to a new set of respondents and asked them to select all that apply in order to understand the percentage of people who are most motivated by these factors.
We’ve cut the data for the preferences of high-propensity visitors at the end of 2018 (EOY 2018), and the end of year 2019 (EOY 2019) to show the relative durability of these findings. We’ve also added data through June 2020 (Mid 2020), which represents the middle of this year and encompasses the entirety of the pandemic’s spread within the United States.
You’ll notice relative durability throughout 2018 and 2019, and some meaningful shifts in the first half of 2020.
Visiting major cities is no longer the leading factor driving leisure destination decisions
Prior to this year, visiting a major metropolitan area was the top leisure destination motivator influencing where people chose to go. It isn’t anymore. This factor is now third on the list, having decreased dramatically as people aim to socially distance and avoid densely populated areas and potentially crowded experiences.
This theme of avoiding crowds carries throughout the other factors that experienced meaningful decreases. Unique dining, sporting events, concerts, shopping, and performances are no longer motivating the selection of leisure destinations. Instead, destinations offering outdoor experiences are more likely to secure people’s attention, with parks, historic locations, waterfronts, and hiking observing the most notable upticks.
Visiting friends and family is now the top destination motivator, though even this factor decreased compared to previous timeframes. This is likely in light of the pandemic and some social distancing from loved ones.
These findings do not mean that downtown regions are empty! But it does mean that being located within a city – once a major benefit for lucky cultural entities in these areas – is not quite as big a benefit right now. Instead, data suggests people may prefer outdoor, socially distanced experiences. These may be more available in areas outside cities.
People especially prefer to travel by personal vehicle over airplane or public transportation
We’re also seeing meaningful shifts in how people prefer to travel during the pandemic. While the shifts away from airplanes and public transportation in favor of traveling by personal vehicle may be unsurprising, this information is meaningful for cultural organizations aiming to get people through their doors.
Unlike the previous chart, respondents chose only one preferred option:
Major cities often rely on air travel to bring in tourists, and bigger cities are common-sense stops for trains and busses. Cultural organizations in these areas similarly rely on them as a means to help people come in the door.
However, nearly 90% of people prefer personal vehicles to get around right now – up from approximately 74% prior to the pandemic. This may represent an opportunity for entities further from the city without easy bus or train stops and the perceived density of downtown regions.
These shifts also represents an opportunity for entities to better motivate local audiences in general. The decrease in traveling by plane may result in people visiting drivable destinations closer to home instead. Preferences to bike or walk to planned leisure destinations have also increased. (As a frequent flier turned carless city-dweller whose travel is now limited to her walking destinations, I can personally attest to the increase in that one.)
This particular data collection process aims to understand transportation options both to and from a leisure destination and omits Uber, Lyft, and other ride share services from the “other” category. We tend to observe that ride share options seem to be among the preferred means of transit once a visitor has arrived to a destination, but are not as frequently the means by which someone plans or prefers to travel when contemplating leisure destinations.
There’s an increased preference for daytrips
We categorized a daytrip as traveling to/from a destination in one day without spending the night. The overnight category includes spending one night in the destination area, a weekend encompasses two to three nights, and a weeklong trip is five or more nights.
When people do travel to a leisure destination, they prefer daytrips – even more now than pre-pandemic.
Daytrips tend to lead the pack even in non-pandemic years because they are easiest to plan and have shorter lead days to visit. In other words, a family can wake up on a Saturday morning and hit the road without hours of planning, the worry and costs of a hotel stay, or the other pragmatic realities of a longer trip.
Smaller cultural organizations outside of big cities may be in a particularly good spot to welcome new audiences right now. Don’t get us wrong! Market potential is notably depressed for cultural organizations overall. But smaller cultural entities outside of the big cities may represent a new adventure or destination for people to explore. In some ways, the pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for organizations in these places to cultivate new visitors.
For this to happen, however, people need to know that the cultural organization is there, that it offers an engaging and valuable use of time, and is open to the public. Being top of mind and getting on people’s radars may be vital to capitalizing on any opportunities afforded by these conditions.
Thoughtfully engaging your own communities during this time may also prove beneficial. Visiting friends and family is now the top factor motivating the decision to spend time in an area. Engaging local and surrounding audiences may help your cultural organization rise to the top of the list when out-of-town guests are looking for something to do.
The magnetic pull of the big city isn’t as strong as it was before we were struck by the pandemic. When it comes to leisure destination experiences, people are currently less keen on major metropolitan areas than in the past, and they prefer to travel in their own vehicles and enjoy shorter stays.
Like you, we’re eager for the United States to get a handle on the coronavirus so that people may be safer and healthier, and feel comfortable visiting cultural entities again. Cities are critical for a thriving nation, and many of our most celebrated institutions are in major metropolitan areas.
But we’re also hopeful some love may be shared with cultural entities outside of big cities during this difficult time of depressed attendance. Perhaps some of these treasured spaces may be able to strategize in order to capitalize on current travel preferences.
How long will these preferences last? We’re not sure. We’ll keep watching.
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