The pandemic has changed the length of the visitor planning process – at least for now. Here’s what your cultural organization needs to know.
As we’re all well aware by now, the pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of cultural entity operations and attendance engagement. Today, we’re reporting out on how the pandemic has impacted the visitation decision-making process in terms of planning and ticket redemption timeframes.
In a nutshell, they’ve become much shorter.
Since people are traveling less, cultural entities are seeing a higher percentage of their attendance coming from local audiences. As a result, two significant timeframes have shortened in regard to the visitation decision-making process in the United States when it comes to attending a cultural entity such as a zoo, aquarium, museum, or botanical garden. The first is that “lead days to visit” has shortened, and the second is that the time period between ticket purchase and redemption has decreased.
Let’s look at these two timeframes independently, discuss what’s happening, and touch upon what these changes mean for cultural organizations.
1) Local audiences are planning their visits in a shorter timeframe.
Let’s start by considering the average timeframe from when a person decides to attend a cultural organization to when they actually visit – and how this has changed compared to last year.
At IMPACTS, we call this metric “lead days to visit.” We quantify this metric by first asking people who intend to visit a certain cultural entity about the timeframe in which they plan to do so. Then we follow up with these individuals again shortly after the timeframe they articulated in order to obtain the date on which they attended. “Lead days to visit” represents the average number of days between when they expressed their initial intention to visit and when they actually walked through the door.
This research comes from IMPACTS Experience’s work with partner organizations interested in this research for themselves as well as from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. The chart below contemplates the intentions and behaviors of 4,806 adults concerning their visits to 21 visitor-serving organizations. It is segmented by the number of miles the person resides from the cultural institution.
We have cut the data this way because the distance that one lives from an organization is often a key factor in determining the duration of their planning cycle. This makes intuitive sense: Somebody who can simply hop in their car and drive across town can more readily make last-minute plans to visit an organization than someone who lives further away and needs to arrange for a day off of work, a hotel stay, or airfare. “Lead days to visit” for local audiences was already relatively short before the pandemic, but now it is even shorter.
Prior to the pandemic, a person living within 10 miles of an organization might decide on Wednesday that they’ll take their family to a museum on Saturday. Now, on average, a person living within 10 miles of an organization makes the decision to go and then attends the very next day.
Lead days to visit have notably shorted during the pandemic.
National travel has decreased in the United States, and we’re still seeing that people prefer day trips and to travel by personal vehicle during the pandemic. Right now, people are more likely to hop in their cars and explore the institutions nearest to them when before they might have jetted off to another city or state (or country).
You will also note that the lead time for national visitors has also decreased – though it still remains rather elongated when compared to more local and regional visitation. When considering this, perspective is important: This type of national visitation comprises only 17.3% of the total sample population. So even a small shift in the planning behaviors of a modest number of visitors will make a noticeable difference. Also, there is some related evidence that the drivers of national travel (most noticeably, business travel) have also correspondingly decreased in terms of planning length. Business travel trends to impact visitation (e.g. visiting the zoo before a meeting, conference cocktail parties at the museum, families accompanying the business traveler, etc.).
But there’s more research relevant to this conversation…
2) People are also redeeming their tickets sooner
The research below contemplates the average redemption time – the time between when a ticket is purchased and when somebody walks in the door with that ticket – for six organizations in the US and contemplates several hundred thousand ticket purchases. This is a different metric than lead days to visit because people often make the decision to attend an organization a long while before they actually put down money and buy a ticket for their desired date – sometimes by weeks or months.
Organizations with advanced ticket sales capabilities (i.e. not limited to day-of, onsite, point of sale transactions) may not be surprised to see that even prior to the pandemic, people didn’t generally purchase tickets very long before their desired date of visitation. Pre-pandemic, approximately 78% of visitors purchased and redeemed their tickets within 24 hours. This year, it’s up to 89% of ticket purchasers.
What’s going on here?! As previously mentioned, people are not pursuing national travel to the same extent as last year. This is resulting in a higher percentage of local, suburban, and exurban audiences coming through an organization’s doors. Local audiences may have “go to the museum” on their shortlist of leisure activities to choose from when they do decide to venture outside of their homes during the pandemic, and they live close by! They can act on the decision to go more quickly than somebody who lives further away.
People also seem to be valuing flexibility and “holding onto their money” longer. And who can blame them? Weather, local COVID-19 infection rates, physical school and work schedules, and vaccination opportunities are all relatively in flux throughout the country. People may be making tentative plans and then “seeing how they feel” when their desired date of attendance arrives – and only then purchasing a ticket.
What do these shortened timeframes mean for cultural organizations?
There are several implications from these trends that should impact how executive leaders approach cultivating and understanding attendance right now. Here are three that stand out to us, in particular:
A) Be mobile optimized.
A follow-up question among curious readers may be, “Has how people purchase advance tickets changed in the last year for these organizations?” Indeed, it has shifted.
As you can see in the chart below, more people are now currently using mobile devices than laptops to purchase their advance tickets. (The “other/unknown” category includes transactions where it was not possible to definitively identify the purchaser’s operating systems. This can be a function of a user’s privacy settings, their use of a proxy, etc.)
The charge to “be mobile” is likely more of a reminder to organizations than a breakthrough. After all, mobile devices are top platforms of information for likely visitors to cultural entities. Making sure that your website is mobile optimized has long been a noted best practice.
But streamlining online – and especially mobile – ticketing systems? Not so much, it seems.
Difficulty purchasing tickets is a top access barrier for likely visitors to cultural entities. Enough people find it so frustrating and/or time-consuming to purchase tickets digitally that they report this as a reason why they haven’t decided to visit, despite their interest. Too many windows, small buttons, tiny type, unclear directives, surprise fees, and requests for a time-consuming amount of information… These can be attendance-losing issues.
Some organizations have an unfortunate tendency to excuse, mitigate, or otherwise wipe their hands of these technical issues and explain, “It’s the best that our ticketing platform can do!” But with more people preferring to purchase their tickets online and with “difficulty purchasing tickets” as a top access barrier, entities may be losing or irritating potential visitors. That’s not your ticketing system’s problem. That’s your problem. (Oof!)
People are engaging with organizations and buying tickets on mobile devices. Make sure that you’re ready to smoothly welcome them on these platforms. Interestingly, this trend may have staying power after the pandemic, as more people are using mobile devices despite spending less time on the move.
B) Value social care
“Social care” – customer service through social media – may be especially worthy of attention in light of these timeframe changes. People are acting upon their visitation decisions more quickly, and they are thus likely to have more time-sensitive questions that need immediate answers: Are you closed for COVID-19 restrictions? Are you opening late due to the snowstorm? What are your pandemic protocols and how are you keeping people safe?
This means that organizations will benefit by having someone available to answer their questions. Social media is a nonstop job, and even though fewer people are visiting entities in 2021 than in the past, the need to respond to people in real-time may be even greater.
Shortened timeframes may also impact web and social media content strategies for organizations. If your entity is opening late due to snow, for instance, then it becomes all the more important to make this information known to potential visitors. Remember that when an organization has an unexpected closure, the attendance is often lost and they don’t usually just “come back the next day.” They simply do something else instead.
Social media is – and has long been – important for marketing, brand building, and mission messaging to cultivate attendance. With shortened visitation timeframes, providing customer service aid through these platforms becomes all the more important for securing a visit.
C) Cultivate local audiences
If yours is an organization that relies on tourism, you may find that more regional day trip audiences are making up a greater percentage of your attendance because they have greater visitation flexibility. (We’re seeing this for many of the specific partner entities for which IMPACTS Experience collects data.)
This is resulting in a higher percentage of new visitors to cultural entities compared to previous years. (Note that it is not resulting in more visitors, but a higher percentage of new visitors.) These new visitors tend to be inactive visitors who live nearby and now have an “excuse” to visit that nearby organization. The excuse, of course, may be that these folks aren’t going on a national or international vacation due to the pandemic, and now have an incentive to explore the nearby region instead.
Knowing that local audiences are especially likely to be activated may also impact an organization’s messaging, web content, and targeting. It may also impact what you highlight onsite, how you build a sense of community during this uncertain time, and strategies to elevate membership opportunities right now.
The time between when someone decides to visit a cultural entity and when they walk in the door has decreased in the last year. The time between a ticket purchase and redemption has decreased as well. These findings have implications for organizations aiming to understand the processes that lead people into their doors during the pandemic.
Cultural organizations want to make people’s decisions to visit as easy and pleasant as possible.
Understanding changes in behaviors during the pandemic can help.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analysis, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
We publish new national data and analysis every other Wednesday. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.