Interested in securing attendance by people visiting from out-of-market? Here’s research that cultural organizations need to know.
People are traveling again, and cultural entities in busy destinations may be hoping to snap up tourists visiting the area. “If we could only get 10% of the people who go to that other popular attraction across the road,” some board members may say with stars in their eyes. And it is a hopeful thought! If folks have already put on their “going out pants” (a feat, to be sure!) and they are also in our neighborhood, doesn’t that mean we’re close to securing that visit?
Not necessarily. As people leave their homes and return to their more “normal” pre-pandemic behaviors, there’s growing competition for out-of-home leisure activities – and, critically, for some organization types more than others. Simply put: Time is precious. Let’s say that a family is visiting a more popular, attraction close to your organization. The key to consistently securing a walk-in from this hypothetical family is for them to not only know about you in advance of their arrival to the area, but for them to have already allocated time to visit your organization as a complement to their visit to the other attraction.
It’s not only the museums that are located in the busiest, most-populated areas that consistently reach their market potential, it’s the organizations that are top of mind. The most successful organizations in maximizing onsite participation are those that people have already heard about and have elevated themselves to near the top of planning agendas.
The idea of capture rate in a busy area is an important one, but it can also be misleading when we consider how potential visitors actually behave and make decisions.
1) Organizations that are top-of-mind achieve market potential
Let’s start here. Market potential is a measure of attendance that contemplates the likely number of visitors to an organization given its location, reputation, and experiences. Although a museum in Omaha is not likely to have the same volume of visitation as a museum in New York City (which has a far greater resident population and attracts more tourists), the Omaha museum may be more successful in engaging a greater percentage of its potential visitors.
You’ve likely observed this phenomenon in your own life. For instance, I live right off of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and there are plenty of shops on the crowded Magnificent Mile that have precious few customers inside. These shops don’t often last long on the street, though they likely have more potential shoppers walking by than a similar shop in the suburbs. I’ve also seen – as you may have – major storefronts shut down because they aren’t meeting their market potential. The Rainforest Café and the Gap near my home always felt crowded to me, but they shut down due to underperformance. Just because a museum is in a popular tourist destination doesn’t mean it’s successfully meeting its market potential.
Top-of-mind is a measurement that contemplates how readily people recall and consider a specific organization. This includes measures of awareness weighted by both the priority and “rank” of their mention. Top-of-mind is informed by responses to questions such as, “What do you plan to do during your upcoming trip to Dallas?” (Or Washington DC, San Francisco, etc.)
As you can see, organizations that have higher top-of-mind values are more successful in meeting their market potential. The organizations that people know about and talk about are much better at securing actual visits than those organizations that rely on engendering awareness from “drive-by” (or “walk-by”) traffic, dependent upon an open schedule.
More pointedly, as indicated in these data, every organization that achieved 95% of their market potential for the three years spanning 2019-2021 had top-of-mind values greater than 100.0. As the trend line demonstrates, there is a clear relationship between elevated top-of-mind values and increased market potential attainment.
It’s not enough to simply have an “open” sign in a location with high population and tourist density. An organization aiming to meet market potential must also strive to be worthy of someone’s time. Speaking of which….
2) Schedule is the primary decision-making factor for leisure activities
Time is precious, and it is the top factor in how people decide to engage in out-of-home leisure activities. The charts below show the ranking of these factors from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, with these specific data indicated for the US High-Propensity Visitor cohort. At IMPACTS Experience, high-propensity visitors are folks who profile as having any interest in visiting cultural institutions at all (e.g., zoos, aquariums, museum, historic sites, theaters, etc.). It includes both current visitors and also potential visitors who have not yet chosen to attend and represent more diverse potential audiences (i.e., “inactive visitors”). High-propensity visitors are the people who actually want to go to museums and other cultural organizations.
The data are shown as index values, which is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean of 100. All of the items on this list have index values over 100, indicating to us that they are particularly worthy of our ongoing research into how they contribute to visitation decisions. As you can see, “schedule” is at the top of the list.
What does this mean? If your open hours or performances do not align with a potential visitor’s schedule, then your organization isn’t likely to secure a visit. Close too early or open too late? Depending on your audience, this could be an issue.
Critically, if folks are visiting from out of town, and it’s advantageous (if not necessary) to get on their schedules before they arrive in your neighborhood. If their trip is booked solid with activities, then an organization may be “scheduled out” of the opportunity for an unplanned walk-in. This is all the more reason to invest in and consider strategic outreach and marketing initiatives on the front end of a visit, as the planning process is taking place.
3) People may not spend as much time in-market as leaders think
If we’re trying to increase the capture rate of an organization compared to the volume of people visiting the area, then it helps to know how much time people spend in market pursuing leisure activities, on average.
The chart below contemplates the reported travel behaviors of 2,107 adult visitors to cultural organizations during the first six months of 2022. It shows how many hours people are in-market pursuing leisure activities relative to travel distance. (That’s right, folks. It’s in hours.) We use the phrase “pursuing or supporting leisure activities” because folks traveling over 250 miles tend to spend the night in-market, and while sleeping and eating are not active time spent at a museum, these hours spent in-market support their pursuit of leisure activities.
This research excludes folks on business travel. This chart represents people who are in town for leisure purposes, which may include going to a concert, attending a sporting event, doing some shopping, or even visiting a museum or taking in a theater performance.
Straight away you’ll notices that on average the further someone travels, the more time that person spends in-market. You’ll notice that even national audiences are in-market for just under 48 hours pursuing leisure activities. (Remember, this is an average – some people might spend a week in town, others might only spend a day. The greater distance that one travels to arrive at your destination, the more “time off” is generally consumed with travel. This often leaves them with less time available for leisure activities in your market.)
You see the takeaway: Time is tight. Get on agendas before folks leave to visit your destination, or they risk running out of time to visit your organization.
4) Cultural experiences tend not to be primary leisure destination motivators in and of themselves
This said, cultural organizations can certainly make it onto the agenda as tourists plan their time in-market! The list below was populated by an open-ended questioning process that we call lexical analysis. Once we collect the open-ended responses from the market, we then re-deliver these same activities and asked people to select all of the activities that motivate their selection of leisure destination.
You’ll immediately notice some redistribution of demand toward outdoor experiences as a product of the pandemic. You’ll also observe that the top activity motivating leisure activity selection is visiting friends and family – which also has implications for how we get on the to-do list for people visiting the area. (Hint: Continue to engage locals and mobilize members so that your organization is top-of-mind when a friend or family member comes to town.)
Museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, concerts, and performances are generally not independent motivators of destination selection in and of themselves. This represents an opportunity to leverage your organization’s macroenvironment when aiming to entice a visit.
5) The most-visited institutions in the United States average a 9% capture rate
At IMPACTS Experience, we monitor perceptions and behaviors surrounding 224 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. This includes many of the most-visited institutions as they tend to be ripe for spotting trends.
On average, what are the capture rates for the most-attended organizations in the US? The orange bar shows the 30 most-visited exhibit-based US cultural entities in terms of annual daytime attendance during the ten-year duration spanning years 2010-2019 as contemplated in our data set. As you can see, they average about a 9% capture rate for folks visiting their respective markets. You can see average capture rates of the most attended institutions by select organization types as well.
Why are we showing you this research? Same-paging expectations around capture rates is critical as travel picks up and many institutions experience their peak summer months. The conversation isn’t necessarily as linear as “the more people who visit our city, the better we’ll be at meeting market potential.” It’s also not as linear as thinking that a majority of people who visit New York, for instance, are necessarily captured by a single institution. In fact, there’s little variance in capture rates between years for many organizations because optimizing market potential is often an equation of perfecting marketing, top-of-mind awareness, relevance perceptions, and satisfaction metrics over a long period of time.
Take a look at the anonymized major institutions below as an example. (We need to anonymize them as a function of our agreement with the study’s funders, but we won’t stop you from guessing.) The blue bar indicates the average capture rate for that specific organization during the 10-year period spanning years 2010-2019.
There is notable variance in capture rates by both organizations and destinations; indeed, there is often a variance in capture rates between organizations located within the same destination…some within easy walking distance of one another! These numbers are not “good” or “bad.” They are what they are, as several factors contribute to an individual organization’s capture rate.
Want to meet market potential? It’s a good idea to entice passersby to discover your organization and enjoy your experience on the fly, but research shows that this may be far from an efficient or effective strategy by itself. It will come as no surprise to leaders that targeted engagement strategies aimed at influencing the planning process are key to getting on the itineraries of people visiting the market.
Time is precious, and our goal is to prove that we’re worthy of it before the vacation agenda is solidified.
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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