As Americans learn to live alongside the coronavirus, they continue to prefer some cultural activities over others when compared to 2019 – and the research suggests that these evolving preferences may prove durable.
When the pandemic first began, IMPACTS Experience started monitoring how the coronavirus was impacting the types of organizations people were choosing to visit. We’ve referred to this metric as the “redistribution of demand.” Now, more than two years into the pandemic, institutions may expect the demand for different cultural experiences to return to pre-pandemic levels. In other words, one might think that the folks who once enjoyed going to the theater over the zoo would by now have returned to their pre-pandemic preferences.
But that’s not the case. The demand for onsite cultural engagement remains redistributed away from some organization types and towards others.
This research has important implications for strategic planning, market potential and future attendance expectations, and engagement tactics.
Redistribution of demand as of the end of the first quarter of 2022
It’s been some time since we published redistribution of demand data, so let’s start with a refresher on the methodology. We’ve been asking people the following basic question: “On a scale of 1 to 100 where a response of 1 means ‘a significant decrease in my likelihood of visiting,’ a response of 50 means ’the same’ or ‘no change in my likelihood of visiting,’ and a response of 100 means a ‘significant increase in my likelihood of visiting’: How likely are you to visit a(n) [organization type] after the current coronavirus-related restrictions are removed and you are able to resume your normal activities?”
A response of 50 indicates no change whatsoever in intended future visitation behaviors, suggesting intentions to engage with the indicated organization type as they would in the “before times.” Any response greater than 50 indicates a proportionately higher level of demand for a type of organization, and, conversely, any response less than 50 indicates proportionately lessened demand.
This research does not necessarily mean that people prefer botanic gardens to symphonies on the whole. Instead, this metric measures how likely people are to return to their normal, pre-coronavirus behaviors. It means that people whose normal behavior in 2019 was to go to symphonies report being less likely to return to the symphony now. It means that people whose normal behavior was to go to botanic gardens are even more likely to visit them now than they were before the pandemic.
The chart below shows the redistribution of demand as of the end of 2020 and 2021, as well as through the end of the first quarter of 2022. The different timings of the bars are included in order to better demonstrate how quickly things are changing as American behaviors and regulations have broadly loosened.
If you’re a regular reader familiar with IMPACTS data and methodology, then you already know that seemingly small changes in big data can have significant implications. Any number above or below the 50 value is proportionally indicative of more or less demand relative to “normal 2019” visitation behaviors.
What do these findings mean?
1) There remains a redistribution of demand away from stationary, indoor activities towards outdoor activities or those that allow for freedom of movement.
This finding from the early weeks of the pandemic continues to hold true even now that institutions have long since reopened, many folks have been infected or vaccinated, and most mask requirements have been lifted. Even with these looser regulations harkening back to pre-coronavirus times, people are still behaving differently when it comes to their behaviors involving cultural activities.
You’ll note that redistribution of demand dramatically benefits parks and gardens. It also strongly benefits zoos, aquariums, and some museums. During the pandemic, gardens, zoos, and aquariums generally did (and continue to do) comparatively well in attracting visitors – with some attracting even greater attendance numbers than before the pandemic! Over the last couple of years, Americans have been conditioned to consider outdoor activities and those that allow for greater freedom of movement as more top-of-mind due to safety perceptions. Simply, the pandemic more effectively activated previously inactive visitors to these institutions by providing a perceptually safer activity than other out-of-home competitors for leisure time. People who may have been interested in either going to the zoo or seeing a movie in the movie theater are more likely to choose the zoo now – even if the movie would have won out in pre-pandemic times.
A factor likely contributing to the redistribution of demand toward museums in particular is that people previously interested in these types of experiences are starting to come back. Indeed, there may be some pent-up demand at play for art, history, and other museums. Additionally, science museums and science centers have returned to historic levels of demand. This may generally be considered good news given concerns surrounding touching shared objects during the pandemic.
However, this makes the redistribution of demand away from performing arts even harder to swallow. These organizations have also been adding back programs and experiences to welcome back guests and patrons, but while people are indeed attending these organizations again, their intentions are notably lower than 2019 levels – even among those who consider themselves regular patrons of the performing arts. Predictably, this impacts market potential for performing arts organizations.
2) This redistribution of demand may be the “new normal” …at least for the near term.
This point may be the most important of the whole article: These findings have proven relatively durable over the past two years. While some seasonal variability affects these trends, the data on the whole suggests that visitors have not only adjusted their behaviors in response to the pandemic but have settled into these new preferences as part of a “new normal.” Extant research suggests that new habits are formed in 66 days, on average. At over two years into the pandemic and over a year reducing regulations and mask mandates, visitors to cultural organizations are well beyond this timespan in establishing new habits. Returning to previous visitation behaviors will happen slowly, if it happens at all.
This finding is a good one for zoos and botanic gardens seeking to attract or maintain greater attendance. It’s a potential blow for theaters, symphonies, and other live performances. As a reminder, though, attracting new audiences by way of elevating welcoming perceptions is still an issue for organizations experiencing positive redistribution of demand. While positive-demand entities are comparatively doing better on this front on the whole, attracting more visitors does not always mean that an organization is effectively attracting the new visitors required to sustain attendance into the future.
3) Digitization played a likely role in the durability of this new reality
The other factor potentially influencing the durability of these behavioral shifts is the technological response to the pandemic. Multiple studies indicate that the pandemic has rapidly accelerated digitization trends, and perhaps no visitor-serving enterprise has been more affected by this trend than the performing arts. Accelerated digital adoption coupled with the increased competition from the couch (i.e., one’s likelihood to stay at home for leisure purposes (link)) and technological innovations that enable more robust viewing and listening experiences continue to challenge the market potential of place-based performing arts.
This research does not necessarily indicate that interest in the content presented by performing arts organizations has changed! People are interested in entertainment. However, the pandemic may have shifted expectations around the delivery of performing arts content and how people engage with it. During the pandemic, entertainment companies met us on our couches with releases of robust streaming content. As of the end of 2021, 86.5% of Americans who say they prefer to stay home over the weekend report that they watched a movie or show the last time they stayed home. From a performing arts perspective, consider that the number of people viewing “Hamilton” within its first ten days on Disney+ exceeded the total number of people who had seen the show in person!
Old habits die hard. When cultural organizations shut down, Americans missed visiting them, and perceptions that these institutions are assets to their communities generally increased over the course of the pandemic. But the past two years have been hard, and those old habits haven’t stayed the same. While there may have been hope among some institutions that Americans would return to 2019 behaviors and preferences as soon as the opportunity arose, that’s not proving to be the case. Many behaviors and perceptions shifted during the pandemic. It may be some time before they move back – if they do so at all.
While change is always difficult – especially when layered atop more change – these shifts may represent a strategic opportunity. For some organizations (e.g., parks, gardens, zoos, aquariums, some museums), the durability of the pandemic’s redistribution of demand may be good news for audience engagement. For performing arts organizations, however, these findings are an indication that audience engagement remains altered, requiring consideration of new potential platforms and methods of connection. It’s still a time of trial, creativity, testing, and evolution for performing arts organizations as they invite guests back to their auditoriums, continue to experiment with outdoor experiences, and cultivate online communities.
Americans are inching toward a new normal and life is different than it was in 2019. In some ways it may be better. In others, worse. Cultural executives must continue to lead their institutions in strategic evolution to educate, connect, and inspire their communities – come what may.
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.
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.