The primary motivation for choosing a leisure destination right now is visiting friends and family. This is different than before the pandemic, and it has possible implications for cultural organizations.
The holiday season is upon us and cultural organizations may be gearing up for a bump in attendance. On average, historically, 19% of annual attendance takes place during the last quarter of the year for museums, and a meaningful percentage of this attendance happens in the roughly one-month holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And people are traveling again this season! Children are getting vaccinated! After a rough couple of years in terms of unpredictable attendance in light of the pandemic, there’s reason to be hopeful.
Given the news that travel is up this season, we wondered if research reveals any potential changes in where people are going this year and why – and what this might mean for cultural organizations such as museums and performing arts entities.
While visiting a major metropolitan area has historically been the leading factor influencing where people decide to travel, this is not the case during the pandemic – or during this season overall. Instead, the top motivator is visiting friends and family. After nearly two years largely spending less time with our loved ones who live further away due to the pandemic, the rise in this primary motivator may not be altogether surprising.
The research below is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage study, at present including over 170,000 individuals. One question we ask folks is what is currently motivating their leisure destination decisions. The list is populated by a two-part process. First, we collected people’s answers to questions related to leisure activity motivation 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. Then, these categorized responses are used to populate the response range of questions in which respondents are able to choose all or any that may apply to their most recent or upcoming leisure destination selection. In other words, we did not internally brainstorm these options and present them in a survey based on our best guess of what people would say. The options came directly from survey respondents.
As you can see, “visiting friends and family” is historically an important leisure destination motivator. However, it notably increased during the pandemic and displaced “visit a major metropolitan area” as the most frequently cited leisure travel motivator.
Upon seeing this information, many leaders may be thinking, “Great! Bring on the memory-making within our gates!” And that’s a wise response. People reliably report that the “best thing” about visiting a cultural organization is spending time with friends or family. However, some of the implications of this change in top leisure travel motivators may be particularly meaningful for museums and performing arts organizations this season.
1) This trend may impact marketing decisions and emphasize local area engagement this season.
While cultural organizations tend to have a reliable pulse on their local and regional communities, this change in destination motivation may underscore this opportunity when compared to past years. We know that when people visit their friends and families, they often tend to adopt their host’s behaviors during the visit insofar as their daily spending, activities, and other factors. While this certainly isn’t the case in all situations, it’s a difference compared to folks whose primary leisure destination selection is something other than visiting friends or family (and spending time with said host).
A possible implication of this finding is to continue to engage local audiences so that hosts recommend a visit to your cultural organization as a fun thing to do – and especially not pooh-pooh the idea of attending if it’s on a visitor’s hopeful vacation itinerary. A possible risk is someone coming into town to visit their sister (or cousin, college roommate, uncle, etc.) and have them say, “Yeah, I’ve been to that museum before. It’s just okay.” In other words, during this holiday season, our locals may play a particularly important role as possible positive or negative endorsers. This may be helpful intel for marketing and online engagement leaders hoping to engage more attendance this year.
2) Visitor satisfaction and value-for-cost may take a slight hit for your organization this season.
This is the finding that may surprise you. When we cross-tabulate average visitor satisfaction among recent visitors to both exhibit and performance-based organizations by their primary leisure destination selection, people who are in that city or location primarily to visit friends and family indicate lower average satisfaction with their cultural organization visits than people visiting that area for other leisure-related reasons. Indeed, these visitors indicate a nearly 10% decrease in overall satisfaction when compared to visitors who selected their leisure destination area primarily to visit a major metropolitan market!
You’ll note, of course, that people visiting an area primarily in order to have a cultural experience rate their cultural experiences higher. That’s great! Look at overall satisfaction for visiting historic locations, aquariums, science centers, zoos, museums, concerts, and theatrical performances. These cultural experiences were primary decision-making factors when considering the destination.
Guest satisfaction isn’t the only metric lowest among those who are in an area to visit friends and family. Value for the cost of admission – the perceived bang that a visitor believes they’ve gotten for their buck when they buy a ticket – is also the lowest for these folks.
Yikes! What’s going on here? Is this some kind of social commentary about how folks really feel about spending time with their extended families?! No. At least not necessarily.
Given research about audience segments and why people visit cultural entities, this dip is unsurprising. To understand what’s happening here, it’s important to understand the four types of potential visitors and non-visitors to cultural organizations:
- Active visitors are active attendees to cultural entities. They’ve gone to at least one in the last two years. These are the people who actually come through our doors.
- Inactive visitors are people who may have interest in attending, but for one reason or another have not chosen to visit a cultural entity in the last two years. (Spoiler alert: These folks are more diverse and they are interested in visiting. They are our key to expanding our audience profiles over time.)
- Unlikely visitors do not generally have an independent interest in attending a cultural organization, but they will visit if they have to. They may not have an unpleasant experience, but if it weren’t due to an external factor (often social pressure), they wouldn’t be attending the cultural organization. These are the folks who take their young cousin to the children’s museum or science center but wouldn’t go otherwise, or who go to museums because they are the site of a wedding, work event, or other activity they are obligated to attend or are attending due to social desire. This is the audience cohort that represents the largest market segment.
- Non-visitors are folks who have no interest at all in attending cultural organizations and they aren’t likely to have friends, family members, or social events that take place at these organizations, either. (It’s easy for us insiders to think, “How can this be the case!?” But in reality, this is a notable portion of the population.)
During this time, we stand to welcome a higher portion of unlikely visitors through our doors. They are the people who are at the zoo because their aunt wanted to go, at the historic site because it’s grandpa’s favorite, or at the art museum because art was the major of the college roommate they are visiting. But unlikely visitors wouldn’t choose to attend these organizations on their own and don’t necessarily have an interest in them. Thus, their overall satisfaction tends to be lower – even if the best thing about visiting is still spending time with a friend or family member.
Let’s be clear: Most people coming in your doors this season aren’t likely be unlikely visitors, but there certainly may be a higher percentage of them than pre-pandemic.
This correlation offers two potential takeaways for cultural entities to consider:
First, know that visitor satisfaction may decline due to other factors as well.
Oof. It’s never fun to worry about visitor satisfaction and value for cost metrics declining. If you do notice a decline this season, know that there may be other factors at play. Namely, we are observing that people are particularly sensitive to crowding perceptions right now – a product of social-distancing behaviors that is proving somewhat durable. People are also more sensitive than in years past to cleanliness perceptions at cultural organizations. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, these perceptions are often correlated. People tend to perceive more crowded spaces as less clean.)
While a higher percentage of travelers choosing leisure destinations to visit friends and family may result in more folks coming through our doors who may be less interested in our experiences, their comparatively lower interest may not excuse or otherwise mitigate all aspects of lower overall satisfaction scores this season.
Second, keep bringing your onsite satisfaction A-Game.
People whose first choice wasn’t the theater may still have a great time attending – and that’s the goal! They may still tell others about their great time – and that’s another positive goal. As usual, it’s beneficial to make sure that people onsite are having the best possible experience. Some organizations might step up their game in light of the rush and not experience a decrease at all!
If there’s a time to deploy strategies to increase visitor satisfaction, ‘tis the season. Providing more positive, personal interactions with staff members can help a lot. Ticking up the charm on employee courtesy and making sure janitorial services are out in full force (and seen, if/when appropriate) can create boosts. Keep making your magic. Keep educating and inspiring the masses.
If there’s a dip in guest satisfaction this season, don’t overreact. Strive for excellence, of course, but know that there are several factors at play right now.
Keep doing what you do best, and kick off a happy, healthy, educational, and inspiring holiday season.
IMPACTS Experience provides data for the world’s leading organizations 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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