Based on the latest available data and most recent modeling efforts, here is the overall level of attendance that museums and performing arts organizations can reasonably expect in 2022.
With the Omicron variant catapulting infections to record-breaking levels, new potential safety protocols on the scene, and worries about closures in our midst, having intelligent attendance predictions contemplative of current realities has arguably never been more important. The research is in and the models have spoken! To kick off the New Year, we are sharing our single most boardroom-referenced annual article on market potential.
Last year, we shared market potential projections by quarter at the start of 2021 and then provided a mid-year update in July to contemplate new conditions surrounding COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, generally speaking, only one market potential analysis at the start of the year was necessary to reliably estimate industry-wide annual attendance with historic variances compared to actual attendance landing in the 2-5% range. But the coronavirus brought with it more unstable market conditions than we’ve observed in the past, and the mid-year modeling update to contemplate evolving pandemic-related dynamics proved useful – actual end-of-year 2021 attendance to cultural organizations was within 3% of mid-year projected attendance. Considering the wait in children getting vaccinated and the arrival of the Omicron variant during Q4 of 2021, a variance of 3% is largely insignificant and chalks up another point to the power of science and math in our current world.
Let’s get to it! Given the current condition, what attendance levels can US cultural organizations generally expect in 2022?
What is market potential for cultural entities?
Annual market potential for cultural enterprise is a modeled measure of the size of the market’s likely engagement with visitor-serving experiences over the course of a given year. At IMPACTS Experience, 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. You can learn more about this process here.
For this article, we’re considering market potential in terms of onsite attendance numbers (i.e., volume of visitation). The research in this article provides a benchmark for the overall market potential for both exhibit-based (e.g., museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, botanic gardens, etc.) and performance-based entities (e.g., symphonies, theaters, ballets, operas, etc.) in the United States to suggest a sense of realistic expectations.
Typically, market potential assessments are developed for a specific organization. The research in this article, however, is a composite intended to provide a broad direction for the cultural sector as a whole, rather than the exact numbers for any individual organization. For example, a zoo in Texas likely has a different market potential than a children’s museum in Los Angeles, even though they are both included in the “exhibit-based” category in this research. To better understand your own organization’s specific attendance projections, you’ll need a more individualized analysis. We can help you with that.
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 but a few. These models can also consider factors such as natural disasters, civil unrest, crime, terrorism, and other “black swan” types of happenings.
What attendance can exhibit-based entities expect in 2022 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 79.7% of 2019 attendance in 2021 (up from 40.5% of 2019 attendance in 2020). As of January 2022, the current market potential for exhibit-based organizations for the calendar year 2022 is 95.5% 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 95,500 visitors in 2022.
Though it may be happening slower than we’d like, we’re set to keep inching up to pre-pandemic numbers. Current projections have exhibit-based entities achieving 2019 quarterly numbers in the second and third quarters of 2023.
However, market potential is – as the name suggests – based upon potential attendance. While it contemplates known limiting constraints such as they may exist today (including variant infection information, vaccination uptake, predictions of how long conditions will last, back-to-work schedules, etc.), it is unable to contemplate with certainty previously unknown factors or conditions. For example, if an organization has been operating without an attendance constraint and then has to limit capacity, this change would impact overall market potential. Conversely, improved conditions such as an ending to the pandemic could lead to an increase in market potential.
The light orange bar shows attendance projections as of 2019. In these charts, 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 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 could have reasonably expected to welcome 103,700 visitors in 2022… if the pandemic hadn’t occurred.
It’s important to remember that this chart shows the percent attendance for each quarter compared to 2019. As you can see, the third quarter of 2022 is currently predicted to perform closely to Q3 2019 actuals. It may feel slow, but all of these projections are improvements upon 2021 quarterly projections and actuals.
What attendance can performance-based entities expect in 2022 by quarter?
Performance-based cultural organizations include entities such as theaters, orchestras/symphonies, and ballets. The actual attendance to these types of cultural entities in the United States averaged 54.5% of 2019 attendance in 2021. As of January 2022, the current market potential for performance-based organizations for the calendar year 2022 is 85.9% 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.
Remember again that this chart shows the percent attendance for each quarter compared to 2019. The third quarter of 2022 is currently predicted to perform most closely to Q3 2019 actuals.
The data suggests performance-based organizations will be slower to recover than exhibit-based organizations. This may be due in large part to the perceived increased health risks associated with indoor environments often associated with a performing arts experience. In fact, current projections don’t suggest performing arts organizations will reach actual 2019 levels industry-wide for the foreseeable future (in modeling speak, our crystal ball doesn’t currently extend past 2023).
Why aren’t cultural organizations likely to fully recover to 2019 attendance this year?
It may be close – particularly for exhibit-based organizations – but entities are not broadly projected to hit pre-pandemic numbers yet. Here are three reasons why that we’re following closely in our research, and about which we look forward to providing insights this year:
1) The pandemic is still here – and right now, it’s not good.
At the time of writing, the Omicron variant is in full swing and your (vaccinated and boosted) author is holed up in her condo playing it safe after COVID exposure. With hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients and the CDC switching up its protocols and making our heads spin, it may seem obvious that we’re not living in a 2019 attendance-attracting world yet. But also consider that after nearly two years in a global pandemic, we may be slowly learning to live alongside the virus and integrating adjustments for safety into our daily lives and considerations. This means that people may expect cultural organizations to maintain adjustments such as safety protocols that align with CDC or local guidance, and may continue engaging remotely via elevated digital engagement tactics.
Although we’re generally seeing an increasing willingness to leave home and have cultural experiences, the pandemic is still among us. This is perhaps the most obvious reason why attendance projections are not yet at 2019 levels.
2) “Schedule” is back on the scene as a decision-making factor as people are returning to work and school.
At the current moment, mixed messages abound as some office work environments welcome back employees while some colleges delay onsite classes. However, as we continue to adjust to living alongside the virus, physical work and school factors may come into play. Schedule is historically the top leisure activity decision-making factor, and cultural entities do not get to decide folks’ schedules – the visitors do. If organizations are not open or don’t have programs during the dates and times people want to attend, they are likely to do something else.
Indeed, schedule has always been an important consideration. But with more people potentially leaving their homes in the coming year or returning to an office, this factor is considered in market potential analysis.
3) The imitative value of lost attendance from the last two years will take time to replace.
Did you know that when a museum has an unexpected closure – due to weather, an event setup, or anything else – the museum doesn’t lose only the attendance for that day? For every one person who did not walk in the door that day, the museum actually loses 1.25 people over the year. Why? Because when a cultural organization loses attendance, it doesn’t only lose those individuals, it loses all of the social media posts, word-of-mouth endorsements, and stories shared with others.
What people say about your organization is much more important in driving its reputation than what it says about itself. (We call this “imitative value” at IMPACTS Experience if you are up for some behavioral economics jargon.) Visitors and patrons are by far an organization’s best marketing and advertising. When entities lose them, they lose their stories.
During the pandemic, cultural entities lost attendance and thus lost valuable word-of-mouth endorsements related to their onsite experiences. It will take time, but the good news is that if we can keep engaging individuals, then we can keep working to rebuild these endorsements. (Hint: Facilitating the sharing of these stories on social media or by providing noteworthy experiences onsite that people want to share with others can help speed this up!)
Well, here we are. Welcome to 2022, executive leaders and culture lovers.
It may be another pandemic-impacted year, but your hard work adjusting, evolving, strategizing, and creative problem-solving has helped keep your communities educated and inspired. Current projections suggest that this year may reasonably be better than last year – and that’s a big win!
We look forward to publishing aggregated mid-year attendance projections as well, and please do let us know if we may be of service with more specific research as you make your way through the year ahead.
We’ve all got our attendance projections in hand, and our communities to inspire.
We’ve got this.
You’ve got this!
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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