Here’s the overall level of attendance that museums and performing arts organizations can reasonably expect this year.
It’s a new year, folks! However, a simple glance at the headlines hints that it still may not be an easy one. Research suggests that attendance to cultural entities in 2021 is likely to be higher than in 2020… but still a long way from historic levels.
We last shared a modeled market potential analysis for exhibit and performance-based entities in August 2020. Today, we’re sharing updated expectations. Given the current condition (infection rates, changing leadership, vaccination rollouts, etc.), what attendance levels should US cultural organizations generally expect to realize in 2021?
Let’s dive into the answer as of the start of 2021.
What is market potential for cultural entities?
Market potential for cultural enterprise is a modeled measure of the size of the market for these experiences at a specific time. It is the product of modeling robust data relating to the US public’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors concerning cultural enterprise. Market potential studies leverage data concerning visitor behaviors to develop models of both the market and the experiences offered to the public by cultural organizations. The outputs of the simulated interactions between these two models during a defined duration are quantified to produce a data-informed attendance forecast.
For this article, we’re considering market potential in terms of onsite attendance numbers (i.e. volume of visitation). To the degree that capacity limitations or closures that might limit onsite participation for individual organizations, these factors inform public perceptions and behaviors and, in turn, impact overall market potential. IMPACTS Experience conducts this type of data modeling regularly on behalf of its clients, and it proves historically reliable as a means of projecting annual attendance levels.
The research in this article provides a benchmark.
In this article, we’re sharing the overall market potential for both US exhibit and performance-based entities in order to provide a sense of realistic expectations as organizations recalibrate their business and audience engagement plans.
Typically, market potential assessments are developed for a single organization. The research in this article is a composite intended to provide a broad direction for the cultural sector, rather than the exact numbers for a specific organization. Though they are both included in the “exhibit-based” category in this research, a zoo in Texas, for example, likely has a different market potential in 2021 than an art museum in Los Angeles. To better understand your own organization’s attendance projections, you’ll need a more individualized analysis. We can help you with that!
Market potential analyses inform planning expectations. They can help CFOs and board finance committees figure out how to make ends meet, help CMOs develop realistic marketing and engagement plans, and help leaders prioritize initiatives in order to execute mission objectives while avoiding false starts and missteps.
Let’s first consider projected market potential before the pandemic.
In the chart below, 2019 total attendance numbers are represented by an index value of 100. Some entities welcome one million visitors and some welcome ten thousand visitors. Standardizing actual past attendance numbers to an index value of 100 allows us to collectively consider attendance for many institutions at once in order to compare past performance to future engagement opportunities. This allows us to quantify expectations in terms of likely changes relative to past performance.
For example, a future market potential value of 110 when compared to a baseline value of 100 would suggest a 10% increase in expected attendance. The outcomes of the market potential models completed in January 2020 indicate that an exhibit-based organization welcoming 100,000 visitors in 2019 would have reasonably expected to welcome 103,700 visitors in 2023 (if the pandemic hadn’t happened).
Many factors influence market potential: awareness, negative substitution (not reaching new audiences fast enough), attitude affinities (how welcoming entities are perceived to be), prevailing market conditions, and competition, to name a few. These models can also consider natural disasters, civil unrest, crime and terrorism, and other “black swan” types of incidents. While we know that these events are rare, 2020 has taught us that their impacts can be profound and lasting. (Oof!)
So where do things stand as of the start of 2021 for exhibit and performance-based entities, respectfully?
What attendance can exhibit-based entities expect in 2021 by quarter?
Exhibit-based cultural organizations include entities such as museums, historic sites, aquariums, zoos, botanic gardens, and science centers. The actual attendance to these types of cultural entities in the United States averaged 40.5% of 2019 attendance in 2020. As of January 2021, the current market potential for exhibit-based organizations for the calendar year 2021 is 72.2% of their 2019 attendance.
In other words, a generic exhibit-based organization that welcomed 100,000 visitors onsite in 2019 should expect to similarly engage 72,200 visitors in 2021. This estimate contemplates both periods of closure and reduced or redistributed demand upon reopening. However, market potential is – as the name suggests – based upon potential attendance. While it contemplates known limiting constraints such as they may exist today, it is unable to contemplate heretofore unknown factors or conditions. For example, if an organization has been operating at a 50% attendance constraint and then has to further limit capacity to 25%, this change would impact overall market potential. Conversely, improved conditions could lead to an increase in market potential.
For these reasons, market potential should be viewed as a “snapshot” analysis of a moment in time for planning purposes – as inputs that inform market potential evolve, so, too, will an organization’s market potential.
You may recall that market potential for 2021 was 78% of 2019 attendance as of August 2020. Indeed, market potential for 2021 has since decreased, while market potential for 2022 has slightly increased. The chart below shows how market potential projections changed between August 2020 and the new year.
What is likely driving this change? The rollout of the vaccine. We see that many people are planning to defer their visits until after they are vaccinated. Some have been waiting many months to attend cultural entities. They may be thinking, “Hey, what’s a few more months to get the vaccination and ensure safety?”
News articles are currently reporting that Americans may expect a more complete vaccination rollout by the summer. Research shows that people may be adjusting their visit planning and expectations accordingly, with Q3 2021 (July–September) currently indicating the most significant resumption of more “normal” visitor behaviors.
Summertime herd immunity – if we can achieve it – would be great news for cultural entities! The third quarter of each year accounts for the largest percentage of visitation to cultural organizations – 31.39% for exhibit and performance-based entities on average combined. The fourth quarter is generally the lowest, accounting for 18.99% of total annual attendance across all cultural organization types, both exhibit and performance.
It’s important to remember that this shows the percent attendance for each quarter compared to 2019. These findings do not necessarily mean that more people will visit in the fourth quarter than in the third! It means that the fourth quarter will be closest to 2019 attendance levels for that same time period. The fourth quarter is when exhibit-based entities will be tracking most closely to historic levels for that time. And at 94.5%, it’s pretty darn close.
All of this is, of course, if vaccination rollouts continue as expected…
What attendance can performance-based entities expect in 2021 by quarter?
Performance-based cultural organizations include entities such as theaters, symphonies/orchestras, and ballets. The actual attendance to these types of cultural entities in the United States averaged 22.8% of 2019 attendance in 2020. As of January 2021, the current market potential for exhibit-based organizations for the calendar year 2021 is 57.7% of their 2019 attendance. Critically, market potential assumes that programming and the opportunities to engage through onsite attendance are similar to previous years. Thus, actual attendance may be lower if entities have reduced programming in light of the pandemic.
You’ll notice that even before the pandemic, market potential for performance-based institutions was declining. Though theater audiences can vary significantly based upon the offered programs, the historic audiences for symphonies/orchestras and other performing arts institutions are experiencing a phenomenon that IMPACTS Experience calls negative substitution of the historic visitor. In short, core audiences are aging and not being replaced by a younger and more diverse generation at a pace that allows for stable market potential.
You may recall that market potential for 2021 was 64.9% of 2019 attendance as of August 2020. Market potential for 2021 has since decreased, while market potential for 2022 has slightly increased. The chart below shows how market potential projections changed from August 2020 to January 2021.
The primary driver of this change is, again, more accurate news on the vaccination rollout and expectation adjustments.
Performing arts leaders may be hoping for any kind of “win” in the findings. If there is one, it’s the predicted fourth quarter of 2021. At that time, attendance is projected to be at 90% of 2019 attendance for that same period. At the moment, winter 2021 is the closest performing arts entities may be to pre-pandemic numbers.
Three cheers for the hopeful return of The Nutcracker! (If vaccination rollouts stay on track, that is.)
You may notice that performance-based organizations have a slower recovery than exhibit-based organizations. This may be due to the perceived lack of movement and the type of indoor environment associated with a typical performing arts experience. At a museum, a guest can scurry out of the gallery when someone in the room has a cough. This is much harder in a traditional theater environment.
Chin up, leaders!
We knew attendance wouldn’t magically recover when the clock struck midnight on January 1st. However, there’s reason to believe that the vaccine may start to bring more stability in the second half of this year and help put us on the path to more recognizable numbers.
We’ll publish updated market potential for the sector in July 2021, or earlier if we spot a dramatic change for any reason. In the meantime, we are tracking metrics related to everything from the onsite experience to member and subscriber perceptions to online behaviors. As usual, we look forward to keeping you posted.
Keep swimming. Keep being agile. Keep serving your communities.
Bring on 2021.
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