AAM recently released a report that, despite financial stress in our economy, museum attendance, overall, increased in 2009. This is certainly great news for museums, and we encourage you to examine Phil Katz's report carefully.
This piqued our interest, so we took a look at a separate set of survey data that we are analyzing right now from our recent research of over 40,000 museum-going households. In this study, we asked these Core Visitors to museums if the recent economic downturn had affected how often they visited museums. Our preliminary look at one question in that study approaches the question of visitation trends from a different angle.
Before going further, however, we do want to emphasize that our research is not incompatible with AAM's report. It is simply a different perspective that fleshes out the story of attendance at American museums. More on that below.
Methodology of the Reach Advisors' Study
This winter 103 museums participated in our study of museum-going households, yielding a sample of over 40,000 respondents. Participants were recruited via museum e-mail lists, creating a large sample of Core Visitors to museums (but not of infrequent visitors or non-visitors).
The good news is that, overall, the majority of Core Visitors to museums are continuing to visit at about the same pace, despite the economic downturn, with 71% indicating their museum-going habits are about the same.
But while 7% of respondents are visiting museums more often, perceiving museums to be a good value, that is matched by another 7% who feel that museums are too expensive, and are therefore cutting back. An additional 15% made no judgment on the value of museums, but simply said they were cutting back on household spending. This would seem, at first glance, to indicate a potential net loss in visitation, though the AAM study indicates otherwise. As we will see, however, when we examine the data more carefully a net loss may not be the result.
Engagement = Good Value
When we took a first cut at the data, it was clear that the Core Visitors who visit the most often are most likely to feel the museum is a good value, and are more likely to be increasing visitation. In contrast, the Core Visitors who generally visit less often are more likely to be cutting back on visits. Makes sense. Core Visitors who have increased their visitation are also:
- More positive about the museum whose survey they are responding to
- Twice as likely to say the museum meets their needs than those who are cutting back
- More likely to say they would recommend the museum
- 50% more likely to go to their public library at least weekly
- More likely to have graduate degrees and earn more than $100,000/year
Core Visitors who are cutting back their visitation appear to have been less engaged with the museum to begin with. Therefore, it is not so surprising that, being less engaged, they are less likely to perceive the museum as a good value. And with their generally lower incomes, when it comes time to trim that family budget and cut out expensive luxuries (which museums can be perceived as), museums are more likely to be shut out.
Who Is Cutting Back?
We took a closer look at what audience segments are more likely to be cutting back on museum visits. These respondents were more likely to fall in one of two groups:
- Generation Y adults in their 20s. These young adults were 50% more likely to feel museums are too expensive. Given that young adults generally do not form the core of museum membership programs, those admission fees may be hitting them harder . . . or at least be perceived that way. Additionally, this recession has been disproportionately affecting young adults in their 20s, so their discretionary income is down to begin with.
- Parents of children 8 and older. Our data indicates parents whose children are 8 and older are also cutting museums from their budgets and leisure time (peaking with parents in their 40s). What do we think is happening here? Generally, we do see family visitation drop off once children reach about ten anyway. Children's extra-curricular activities increase, families are busy, and museums may no longer seem as necessary for learning opportunities. The economic downturn may be accelerating this trend, with families cutting museums even earlier as discretionary spending shrinks. This is, indeed, troubling, as it indicates an increased pace of families dropping out of the museum-going habit, which may have long-term ramifications for museums seeking to increase the number of adults who are curious and love museums.
Who Really Values Museums?
Interestingly, in this first look at the data, only one audience segment really stood out as increasing their visitation:
- Parents of children 5 and under. Already this was the segment that generally visited museums the most often, with repeat visits common at children's museums in particular, but also science centers and other types of museums (if perceived to be age appropriate). With a focus on child development and learning, and high repeat visitation rates to begin with, these families are more likely to be putting more time, and money, into what they perceive to be high-value experiences that are critical to their children's development.
Other respondents, that is, older Core Visitors, and Core Visitors in their 30s and 40s without children, were generally unchanged in their museum-going habits. Which also indicates that in tough times, they are not willing to cut museums out - a good sign of engagement and support (even if they are not visiting museums more often!).
Our Results vs. AAM's Results
The results of this study only tell a part of the story, and the results from AAM tell a different part. Some things to consider:
- First of all, the data present two very different things. AAM is sharing actual attendance figures, while our research is asking about general visitation patterns. That is, we did not specifically ask our respondents how many times they visited a museum in 2009, or 2008.
- Second, our results are from Core Visitors. It does not include the visitation of casual visitors, so we do not know if casual visitors are visiting more, or less, often. Even though we didn't survey infrequent visitors in this specific survey, we see indications that some museums are being perceived as a greater value for the less frequent visitors as their economic situation gets tighter. While that macroeconomic environment isn't necessarily a good thing, it's probably a good thing when museums see more visits from these infrequent visitors.
- Finally, we suspect that the Core Visitors who are visiting museums more often may be more than outweighing the Core Visitors who are visiting museums less often. Given that the respondents who are visiting more are more likely to be parents of preschoolers with high visitation rates to begin with, this is actually quite possible.
Simply put, our data presents a story told from the perspective of Core Visitors, asking about general visitation patterns, while AAM's data presents a story told from the perspective of museums with hard visitation numbers. We have confidence in BOTH sets of research, and do not find them to be incompatible, but instead complementary as we flesh out how difficult economic times affect museums and their visitors.
What do you think? Have you seen visitation rise, or fall, during the recession? Have you noticed more younger families visiting? Is your museum finding something different from the overall trends? What about you and your family?
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