While attendance to cultural organizations is down across the US, the percentage of attendance made up of non-recent and first-time visitors is up.
Due to the pandemic, attendance to cultural organizations is not predicted to recover to 2019 levels this year. This isn’t a surprise. Despite continuing vaccination rollouts, the coronavirus is still a primary safety threat as new variants sweep the United States.
While it may feel at times like the cultural industry could write a dystopian nonfiction novel about the struggle and negative impact of 2020 on our nation’s national treasures, there’s still some good news to be found in the data.
We’ve already shared some of it: Cultural organizations are perceived as even more credible sources of information now than they were in 2019, and they’ve gone digital with more people interacting with them online, elevating perceptions that these organizations may be community assets beyond their physical walls.
And here’s another interesting thing happening during the pandemic…
Exhibit-based cultural organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, etc.) are welcoming a higher percentage of non-recent and first-time visitors than before the pandemic.
IMPACTS Experience monitors perceptions and behaviors surrounding 224 cultural entities (exhibit and performance-based) in the United States. The research below contemplates the percentage of new and non-recent visitors as a percentage of total attendance for 127 exhibit-based organizations in the United States from 2016 through 2020. In the research, a “non-recent” visitor is someone who hasn’t visited that organization in three years or longer. This includes first-time visitors.
Take a look at how the percentage of new and non-recent visitors to these organizations changed in 2020 – a year marked by closures and public safety concerns.
The average percentage of new and non-recent visitors increased a staggering 51% from 2019 through 2020 – from 9.4% of attendance to 14.2% of attendance! That’s a big change. While you can see that the percentage of these visitors was decreasing prior to the pandemic (more on the reasoning for that later), it was doing so rather slowly. This makes the jump in 2020 even more dramatic.
Why did new visitation increase in 2020?
People are generally more likely to travel to local and regional destinations during the pandemic. The pandemic changed both the way that people travel as well as the length of their travels, with many people preferring to stay close to home. Specifically, people in 2020 preferred (and still prefer) to take day trips and travel by car rather than fly across the nation for the longer vacations common prior to the pandemic.
People who are newly engaged during the pandemic – both non-recent and first-time visitors – tend to be inactive visitors, as we call them at IMPACTS Experience. Not everyone who has interest in visiting an organization actually comes in the door – just ask any entity that has surveyed their community and then found that the expressed interest wasn’t even close to actual attendance numbers. Inactive visitors are those people who have an interest in going to a cultural organization but for one reason or another don’t actually visit. Maybe they’ve been thinking of visiting the art museum, but time is limited; instead, they may have simply preferred to see a movie or attend a sporting event, have a picnic with friends, stay home and watch TV… or take a trip out of town.
But now, the conditions surrounding the pandemic are giving some people who are interested in visiting a good excuse to finally go to the art museum in the next county or visit the aquarium on a day trip from the suburbs.
It’s perhaps worth noting that while the pandemic may be helping to engage local audiences who already have interest in visiting, we’re not necessarily seeing that people who have never been interested in botanic gardens or aquariums are flocking to them. In other words, people who didn’t like museums before the pandemic aren’t suddenly interested now. Instead, people who had “visit the museum” further down on their to-do list in a pre-pandemic world are now bringing it to the top.
And that’s still a big deal because activating inactive visitors is a key component to expanding our audience base.
Why was new visitation declining prior to 2020?
You’ll notice on the chart above that the percentage of first-time and newly activated visitors was in decline from 2016 through 2019. This is in large part due to an increased emphasis on audience research in the sector. Many cultural organizations have prioritized surveying and listening to their current audiences in recent years – and delivering even better programs and experiences based on the feedback of people who already attend. Indeed, the cultural sector had actually gotten better at generally reaching the same people over and over in recent years.
If you are collecting the information onsite or through a survey of people who have visited, then it’s audience or visitor research.
While not as useful for reaching new audiences, this information can be invaluable for cultivating a community of members and supporters. Membership programs are arguably more important than ever before during the pandemic. This kind of visitor research can help entities better understand what’s needed to better engage current visitors and cultivate superfans.
It’s through market research – which includes the perceptions and behaviors of inactive visitors and people who have interest but do not already visit as well as current visitors – that entities are best able to expand their audiences. Market research is what we share on this site and our specialization at IMPACTS Experience. It’s about considering both the people who visit as well as the people who do not.
Do more first-time visitors mean that we’re reaching more racially diverse audiences?
As it so happens, it does. The chart below shows the percentages of the previous percentages of new visitors made up of people who self-identify as non-White individuals. In other words, 15.3% of the 14.2% of newly activated visitors who attended in 2020 self-identified as non-White individuals.
Potentially problematic language alert: “non-White” is problematic language because it is white-centered. So, why are we using that language here instead of BIPOC? Not everyone in our research who self-identifies as non-White self-identifies as BIPOC, so we’re honoring self-identifications while acknowledging that the white-centered language is not ideal. There are many individual self-identifications included in the chart below. What they share is that they’ve self-identified as non-White adults. Self-identifying as a white, non-Hispanic individual is the single most shared attribute of a person in the US who has visited any kind of cultural organization in the last two years, and that’s a problem. It’s also another reason why we don’t want to shy away from sharing this research despite our profession not having the ideal words to express the nuance and uniqueness of a person’s identity.
Check out this good news: The percentage of new and non-recent visitors who self-identify as non-White increased 46% from 2019 to 2020! It rose from 10.5% to 15.3%.
Not only that, the percentage of newly activated audiences who self-identify as non-White was slowly increasing prior to the pandemic as well. The jump in 2020 is exciting and notable.
Make no mistake: There’s still a great deal of work to do for cultural organization attendance to be racially representative of our nation. We have a long way to go, but it’s good to see conditions related to the pandemic (and potentially a dedication to DEIJ work) activating more diverse audiences.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
The lack of national travel right now has taken a bite out of revenue for many of our most treasured cultural organizations. But the pandemic is also providing an opportunity to better engage local, regional, and suburban audiences who may not have visited in a while – or ever at all!
When newly activated audiences come through our doors, we want to make sure they have a great experience. We want them to come back, to tell others, and to share their positive experiences with their communities. Ideally, we want them to become advocates, endorsers, and members. Most of all, we want to ignite in these new visitors a passion for our missions to make the world a better place.
Cultural organizations may have less attendance than they did in a pre-pandemic world, but they are reaching more new people.
And that’s a little bit of springtime sunshine during this overcast time.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
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