Ticketing systems, lack of response, trip planning… Here’s where potential visitors are getting stuck.
When we at IMPACTS Experience ask people who have an interest in visiting museums why they haven’t actually attended recently, items related to the “hassle” tend to be high on the list. This includes responses such as, “It’s far away,” or “Going into the city is a big task,” or “I have unanswered questions about the experience,” or “It’s hard to plan.” You know the drill. You might give these answers yourself if asked why you haven’t done something you’re interested in doing.
For many institutions in the United States, this category of access challenges* – or, the “hassle” – constitutes a top barrier to attendance. As a visit to a cultural entity usually requires some amount of planning and energy before the visit even begins, a goal of leaders of cultural institutions is to lessen the amount of energy required to motivate a visit.
So what are the top access challenges, according to the people in the US, and how have their barrier values changed during the pandemic? We last published research on how the pandemic was impacting access barriers in September of 2020.
Things have shifted since then, and it’s time for an update.
* “Access” is a term also commonly used within the industry to include not only items related to tactical barriers (e.g. physical distance, ticket systems, responsiveness to requests) but also how welcome or unwelcome people feel attending certain organizations. At IMPACTS Experience, we measure critical and complex issues related to welcoming perceptions separately from the physical elements of access that we discuss in this article. That facet of access deserves particular focus, and you can learn more about attitude affinities and related topics here.
The pandemic has exacerbated some of the top access challenges threatening attendance to cultural entities
Before we dive into how the barrier values of different access challenges have changed during the pandemic, it may be helpful for you to know a bit more about what those access challenges are. For an overview, check out the Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video below:
We’ve been monitoring access challenges for years thanks to the trusty National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, now with over 159,000 respondents and counting. The access challenges shown are populated by a process called lexical analysis. Instead of asking participants to choose from a list, we pose open-ended inquiries to find out why people interested in visiting a cultural organization have not done so in the last two years. Advanced technologies then categorize and calculate weights for the responses based on such factors as frequency of mention and strength of conviction. When folks interested in visiting cultural entities tell us that they haven’t visited for a reason related to access challenges, the reasons they indicate are included in the list of barrier choices.
The results are then 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 than one with an index value of 25. In the chart below, you can see that difficulty purchasing tickets is a nearly 3.5x bigger barrier than having a non-compliant building or experience.
The data is cut for EOY (end-of-year) 2019 – before the pandemic – and April 1, 2021 (Q1 2021). As you can see, the ranking of the barriers has not changed, but several barrier values have notably increased. This research is cut specifically for exhibit-based cultural organizations such as museums, botanical gardens, aquariums, zoos, and historic sites, among others. We’ll share information related to performance-based organizations after more of them have reopened in the United States.
1) Hard to get there/travel distance
Physical remoteness and/or time required to commute, for example.
By far the most frequently mentioned items relating to access challenges have to do with difficulty getting to the organization. This is a difficult barrier to overcome, as entities cannot easily control traffic, travel distance, or construction along the way. And it may not matter even if they could. Someone may live in a suburb only a few miles from the city in which a museum is located, but if they feel like it’s hard to get into the city, being hard to get there is still an access barrier.
Though this access barrier tops the list, it’s the only barrier value that has decreased during the pandemic. This is likely due to the fact that people are still generally prioritizing closer cultural organizations, leaning toward day trips over longer trips, and preferring to travel by personal vehicle. There’s also a bit of a “zero-sum game” element taking place here: As more people become notably annoyed by difficulty purchasing tickets, for instance, “hard to get there” begins to decrease in the rankings. During the pandemic, some other access challenges have proven frustrating for the US public, and that is bringing down the comparative strength of conviction surrounding travel distance as a barrier.
This is a big barrier, but the general solution to this may be best summed up in the wise words of comedian Steve Martin: “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.” Of course, he was talking about acting, but it’s not bad advice for cultural organizations, either.
2) Hard to purchase/transact
Difficulties with advance purchasing or ticketing infrastructure, for instance.
Difficulty purchasing tickets comes next – and its index value has risen above 100, indicating it is now a significant barrier that is actively standing in the way of attendance.
The growth in this barrier likely relates to the introduction of new purchasing protocols. Whereas in the past people could simply walk up to the ticket counter and buy a ticket, many organizations now require that people purchase their tickets or reserve their attendance in advance due to capacity constraints. Timed and dated tickets have become increasingly standard as a response to managing capacity, which is an important safety protocol for museums that helps play a role in guests feeling safe. (The capacity limitations, that is. Nobody likes tricky ticketing interfaces and convoluted purchasing protocols.)
While data shows that people aren’t likely to purchase tickets very far in advance, people want to be sure that if they make the trip, they’ll get a ticket. Ticketing systems should be easy, quick, and convenient, both onsite and offsite. Having to click through 10 screens on a tiny smartphone screen to buy a ticket is a sure way to breed frustration and risk losing a visit to a competitor who makes the purchase transaction easier… or a trip to the beach or a picnic in the park instead.
3) Non-responsive to inquiries or requests
Inadequate responsiveness on the phone or social media, for example.
Maybe someone had a question that wasn’t answered. Or maybe they had a question and they didn’t think it would be answered. Leaving questions publicly unaddressed on social media sites or having a standoffish tone if they are answered may contribute to this perception.
This is also a rising value for our sector to actively mitigate, as this barrier value has notably increased during the pandemic. While it has not surpassed 100 in index value, the rise from 80.4 to 93.7 is significant. This rise may be due to the fact that people are spending more time online than they did before the pandemic and more people are engaging with cultural organizations online. Thus, the expectation that cultural organizations be responsive online has likely increased. Cultural organizations do not get “bonus points” for being active and responsive online anymore. It’s an expectation that has only grown stronger during the pandemic.
Given the rise in digital connectivity over the past year, we don’t anticipate that these new expectations will subside. In fact, they may grow even stronger yet.
4) Difficulty planning
Lack of advance planning information, for example.
This is another access barrier that has gotten worse during the pandemic, though it’s decreased in recent years. While difficulty planning currently comes in fourth and has increased in the last year, this was the second biggest access barrier just a few years ago! Google and other search engines have put maps, hours of operation, and information on things to do in the area front and center on many of our screens, making planning the day much easier… but that doesn’t mean cultural organizations don’t still have work to do.
The increase in this barrier value during the pandemic is likely due to our comparative loss of ability to “just wing it” when it comes to certain parts of the visitation decision during a pandemic. Planning is more than the visit itself. To make the decision to leave one’s home to attend, people may also first want to consider where they’ll stop to eat, where they’ll rest, and ensure that they can fit the trip in amidst their work and school schedules. If an organization’s goal is to entice people to visit, then they benefit by making planning that visit as easy as possible.
5) Non-compliant building or experience
Physical and/or health limitations impacting how the entity is experienced, for example.
A non-compliant building – or the fear of one – rounds out the top five access-related barriers. The increase in this barrier since EOY 2020 is not particularly significant. However, while physical or health limitations may come last on the overall list, these concerns tend to matter a great deal to those who mention them. They may worry that there won’t be enough benches to rest at a museum or be concerned about navigating stairs up to a balcony seat.
Educating and empowering front-line staff to help these visitors, when appropriate, could be one of several possible solutions to help alleviate this barrier.
Access challenges constitute a group of factors that combined present a top barrier – the “hassle” – to attending cultural organizations. Several of these challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic. A few of them correlate with increased expectations surrounding digital engagement and ticket purchasing. While people were staying at home, they were online – and they still are. Our perceptions have shifted, and it will benefit cultural organizations to respond to meet these evolving expectations.
Simply identifying these access challenges may be the first step to creating strategies to alleviate them. Let’s make sure coming through our doors is as easy as possible.
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