2020 has brought a pandemic, fires, hurricanes, an economic recession, and – unsurprisingly – major changes in the top reasons why people with interest do not attend museums and performing arts organizations.
We’ve been thrilled to provide data and analysis throughout the pandemic, and we’ll continue to do just that. Starting this week, however, we’ll go back to our pre-pandemic publishing schedule of putting up new articles every other week in order to focus on the individual organizations reaching out to us for data-informed aid. We’re grateful to be providing webinars and data-informed insight for entities during this time. Let us know if we can help yours, too.
Not everybody who has an interest in visiting cultural organizations comes through the door.
At IMPACTS, we call folks who have an interest in attending museums and performance-based organizations but who have not done so in the last two years “inactive visitors.” These audiences tend to be more diverse than historic visitors, and motivating them to attend may be our key to welcoming new and different audiences over time.
Given their interest, why haven’t they visited in the last two years?
An important way to get them to visit is to understand why they aren’t currently coming in the door in the first place.
We work with cultural entities to help them understand and encourage potential visitors to overcome these barriers and visit. While the unique factors influencing each barrier vary for individual organizations, we find that the primary reasons why people don’t visit were similar and relatively durable for the US population overall.
While new data on the top five barriers to attendance may not surprise you, they have important implications worthy of consideration. Understanding how and how much things have changed can help us work to motivate visitors to come through our doors.
What are the top barriers to visiting cultural entities compared to this time last year?
This data below is from the National Attitudes, Awareness, and Usage Study, which currently includes over 144,000 survey respondents. This chart shows what – as of September of 2020 – are now the top five barriers to visitation for people interested in visiting a cultural institution in the United States, but who have not done so within the last two years.
The data is quantified as index values. An index value is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean. The baseline measure for comparison purposes is 100. Barriers with an index value above 100 are especially worthy of consideration. Index values allow us to accurately compare the “weight” of factors to one another. As an example, a barrier with an index value of 100 is 4x greater that one with an index value of 25.
In order to provide context, we’ve added the index value for these same barriers in 2019. In 2019, the top five barriers were: preferring an alternative leisure activity; nothing new to do or see; access challenges; schedule conflicts; and not feeling welcome. We’re focusing on the top five barriers to visiting cultural organizations in the United States right now, but there are more than five! Schedule conflicts, negative past experiences, not feeling welcome, having trouble finding a babysitter, and many other factors are also barriers.
Why focus only on the top five in this particular article?
Because not one – but two – major barriers to visitation have emerged as top forces keeping people from coming in the doors of cultural entities in 2020 that were either not around or were significantly less impactful in 2019. This is worth a pause.
We have a problem, folks. Cultural organizations currently have three (three!) barriers to visitation with index values over 140! In 2019, we had just one.
2020 is not simply changing up the top barriers to attendance for cultural organizations. There are new and stronger barriers to attendance in 2020 than previously even existed.
Do we have your attention? Good. Let’s talk about it so that we can start coming up with solutions.
1) Coronavirus concerns are the biggest barrier to visiting cultural entities.
No surprise here. But there are two things particularly worth pointing out:
First, this is the first time that any barrier has surpassed preferring an alternative leisure activity (simply wanting to do something else more) as the primary barrier for visiting cultural organizations in the United States. There have been unique times and locations in which other barriers have risen to the top of the list during defined durations. For instance, safety concerns rose to the top of the list for cultural entities in Baltimore after the civil unrest and protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. It remained a top barrier for approximately 60 days, then thereafter retreated from the list of barriers. We’ve been monitoring this data for upwards of 10 years, and never before has something displaced people simply preferring to do something else as the foremost, sustained reason why people do not attend cultural entities. This is a big deal.
The second reason this is a big deal? The index value of 165.1. It’s even higher than the primary barrier to visiting last year (preferring an alternative leisure activity at 162.7). And if we were focusing beyond the top five barriers, you’d see that coronavirus concerns are 5.1x greater a barrier to visitation than admission cost (32.4) in 2020, and a 2.1x bigger barrier than feeling that the organization is “not for people like me” (78.2). Not only are coronavirus concerns the top barrier to attending, but they are a mighty one. Having safety protocols to make people feel safe and mandatory mask requirements are new necessities in a pandemic-impacted world.
2) Preferring an alternative leisure activity is now the second-biggest barrier.
Until this year, preferring to do something else more was essentially the reason why people who were interested did not attend. Sure, going to a historic site sounds cool, but some people would rather have a picnic in the park, go to the beach, see a movie, attend a sporting event, participate in trivia night, or a whole host of other things.
Have you heard all of the cultural industry hot talk about “relevance?” It’s for good reason! The historic data suggests the top reason people did not attend cultural entities for the past 10 years is in a sense due to the need to maintain relevance.
With an index value of 141.9, this barrier is still sky-high. The need to be relevant has not gone away. We just have a new major barrier in town to add to the pile-on: The coronavirus.
But civil unrest is also a major barrier to visitation…
3) Public safety concerns are nearly a 30x bigger barrier to visitation this year than last year.
Racism, looting, the National Guard stationed on street corners, escalating police tactics, lockdowns, protests, crime concerns attendant to a depressed economy… People aren’t as thrilled to venture into downtown regions or communities being impacted by the current state of civil unrest as they have been in the recent past. Unfortunately for cultural organizations, these same neighborhoods and communities are where many of them are located.
Being in the city was previously a terrific benefit. After all, likely visitors tend to live near major metro markets. But this year is a bit different than usual. Not only are safety concerns a barrier – but they are a major barrier now on par with preferring an alternative leisure activity.
It’s worth noting again that this research is for the entire US. Cities have generally tended to have higher safety concern index values than rural or suburban environments. What’s interesting about this is that we don’t even need to cut the data just for major cities: Safety concerns are a barrier to visiting cultural entities throughout the entire US right now.
4) “The hassle” is now the fourth-biggest barrier.
In our data, “access challenges” do not mean only a non-compliant building (though that is included in this category). Here, it essentially means “the hassle.” It’s when we ask somebody an open-ended question about why they haven’t visited, despite interest, and they say something related to it being a bit of a pain to do so. Access challenges that come up frequently relate to travel distance; it being hard to get there; difficulties purchasing tickets; or an organization not being responsive to requests, among others.
“Access” in the way that it is often used in the cultural industry (in terms of not feeling welcome onsite or affordable access programs, for instance) is not contemplated in this particular category. Those barriers are measured with their own categories.
5) “Nothing new to do or see” is now the fifth-biggest barrier.
This was the second biggest barrier to visiting cultural organizations in the United States in September 2019. Like preferring an alternative leisure activity, this barrier often represents an opportunity to create programming that is seen as reliably relevant. In other words, this barrier arises when entities give the perception that being welcoming, interesting, fun, or connective is a time-sensitive special occasion dependent upon specific programs or initiatives.
This barrier can relate to the major exhibit engagement cycle, but it has important implications for programming as well. Simply, this barrier rises to the top when entities try to “one-off program” relevance or being welcoming to new audiences. (I am using “one-off program” as a verb now, and I’m not sorry about it.)
Many try, but it’s difficult for organizations to one-off program themselves to success. Successful evolution is integrated into operations rather than added on.
Cultural institutions are facing new obstacles to securing guests on top of those that previously existed. Coronavirus concerns are a major barrier to attendance. Safety concerns are also major barriers to attendance. You probably didn’t need data to show you that these items are playing a role in keeping people from attending cultural institutions.
But maybe you did need data to see just how big these barriers are right now.
Knowledge is power, as they say. And now you have more of it in order to aid strategic problem-solving to help increase your reputation, make sure people feel safe visiting, capitalize on emerging opportunities, and innovate.
Understanding barriers to attendance is the first step to knocking them down.
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