Intentions to visit cultural entities in 2021 have dramatically increased since the announcement of the upcoming coronavirus vaccination. But the first quarter of the new year may not be easy.
There’s finally good news on the pandemic horizon! The US is planning to begin its coronavirus vaccine rollout. Research shows that people are notably gearing up to visit cultural entities such as museums, zoos, aquariums, and performing arts organizations with gusto…
…in the next six months or longer.
Let’s talk about changes we’re already seeing in the data.
What is “intent to visit” and what does it tell us?
Upon the national emergency declaration in March, IMPACTS Experience provided weekly updates on a metric known as “intent to visit” for several months in order to understand shifting plans around visiting cultural institutions in light of the pandemic. (They looked like this.) Unlike mere interest in visiting an organization, intent to visit within a defined duration is among the best available metrics for reliably predicting behaviors. Intent to visit tells us when people are actively planning to attend cultural organizations, and how the current environment is impacting future plans.
Prior to the pandemic – when people were more in control of their own long-term schedules without worrying about infection rates, quarantines, and restrictions foiling their plans – intent to visit was a reliable gauge of likely attendance. This was difficult in 2020, as people who made longer-term plans to visit organizations in earnest were not as able to execute those plans as they would have been able to do in the past due to changing conditions and risk factors. Even so, this metric remains helpful in understanding people’s intended plans for future visitation and aligning these intentions to a specific chronology.
We monitor this metric for major changes on an ongoing basis. And indeed, we saw a noteworthy change in national intentions to visit cultural entities when news of the upcoming vaccination began to hit the stands in November.
For context, let’s look at intent to visit in 2019
Ah, the good old days before we all started collecting masks and social distancing. That’s a good place to start.
We measure intent to visit for 84 cultural entities in the United States. Intent to visit is quantified in scalar variables as of the end of each month (i.e. “November 2020” shows data through November 30th). A good way to think of these scalar values is as a measure of the likelihood of the intended behavior being carried out. 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.
The chart below shows what things looked like around this time last year. These values are similar to prior years. There is seasonality in the numbers, as you can see that intent to visit in three months after November is lower. December, January, and February tend to be slower months for many cultural entities. If people today were planning to visit cultural entities at the same rates as they historically did pre-pandemic, then current intentions to visit would approximate these values.
Vaccination news has already significantly impacted intentions to visit in 2021
Despite remaining challenges, check out the good news here! The promise of upcoming coronavirus vaccinations started to become real in November. And by “real,” we mean that the theories, hopes, and promises of a potential vaccine began to shift to more solid, reliable, actual news of its imminent approval and distribution.
The increases in intentions to visit within six months and by the end of the year are dramatic. This means people are planning to attend cultural entities more in 2021 compared to the same time period in 2019! The striking degree of change in November 2020 for intent to visit in and after six months is unlike any positive movement that we’ve heretofore witnessed on a national level for intent to visit.
This matters. This matters because it shows us that people are awaiting the “go” to return to their pre-pandemic activities with gusto. The timing of the dramatic uptick suggests that people may be seeking not only hope in the promise of a vaccine but are actually using its estimated delivery as a sort of threshold to pass in their planning efforts.
But there’s still some not-so-good news: The dramatic decrease in intentions to visit in three months as of the end of November suggests that further dynamics are in play. Specifically, people may now defer their visits until after they are vaccinated. If this is part of the American decision-making psyche right now, then it means that the first quarter (at least) of 2021 will be another hard one for cultural entities.
The sad romance of the moving “six months” mark
Prior to the pandemic, people were able to execute out-of-home leisure or travel plans with confidence, and intentions to visit were generally realized. The metric aligned closely with actual attendance. The intent to visit metric still represents earnest plans, but the pandemic robbed many of us of this freedom in 2020 due to rising infection rates, closures, and quarantines.
Since the pandemic began, this metric has become a sort of study of human hope in the face of adversity. It’s shown us how people make plans around unknown conditions during a relentlessly unpredictable year. Throughout the pandemic, Americans have consistently believed that they will fully return to normal behaviors within six months… but that horizon keeps moving further into the distance. Yet we still see most Americans believing that their plans will stick in six months, and making those plans in earnest. The six-month timeframe may roll back, but the American public’s intent to return to leisure activities is strong.
For this reason, the key takeaway from the research is that people likely plan to attend – at elevated levels – after they are vaccinated.
We’ll keep watching this metric, and we’ll provide an update on market potential (i.e. attendance projections) for cultural entities in January 2021 so that you have hard math on what this information means for benchmark attendance levels. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.
More people say that the vaccination will make them feel safe visiting again
Why do we suspect some people may defer their visits until after they are vaccinated? The decrease in intent to visit in three months as of the end of November is the biggest tell.
Another clue may be the notable increase in the percentage of people who say that the availability of a coronavirus vaccine will make them feel comfortable visiting again. This value was high at the start of the pandemic but had since decreased significantly as people learned to live alongside the virus. Now, this value has shot back up and increased by nearly 10% since October. The decrease in the importance of “availability of treatments and therapies” may also be a result of the rush of vaccination news and hopes.
We’ve been asking people, “What would make you feel safe and comfortable visiting a [insert organization type] again?” First, we collect people’s answers to this open-ended question using a process called lexical analysis that allows us to broadly categorize responses from people using their own words. The technologies that enable this process help to minimize the risks of unintentional biases that occur when facilitators translate or summarize a respondent’s statements. These categorized responses are then used to populate the response range of a multiple-choice question.
This chart also represents findings that we’ve been monitoring since the start of the pandemic. We’ve previously shared updates on this chart multiple times, and also shared how it differs (or not) for members/subscribers, and have covered the still-growing desire for mandatory mask requirements.
People wanting to be safe is a good thing. People making plans to visit as America moves in a healthier direction is a good thing. The excitement to visit cultural entities in 2021 manifesting itself in the data is absolutely a good thing!
Things may be dark for a bit more time, but the sun may just be starting to peek over the horizon in 2021.
We’ll keep watching.
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