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What will reopening mean for museums, and are visitors ready to return?

Julie Vigne Senior Research Director 09/06/2020

As tentative steps are taken towards reopening the sector, we explore the challenges of enticing visitors back to cultural attractions

Four in ten say ‘having a day out’ is one of the things they are most looking forward to post lockdown

With summer fast approaching, our weekly Covid-19 tracker shows that days out are something hotly anticipated post-lockdown.

The data shows that 41% of the UK population say ‘having a day out’ is one of the things they are most looking forward to, second only to visiting family and friends. This increases to almost half amongst UK families (49%). Conversely, worries about finances remain strong, with 46% saying that their household disposable income has decreased since the start of the crisis (data from 20/05/20).

This is especially concerning for cultural institutions. Research from ArtsProfessional found that closure of venues could cost over £1 million per day, while a separate study by Consultancy TRG Arts discovered that advance ticket sales and income for almost 200 institutions on March 17 – the day the Government announced the lockdown – was down 92% year-on-year.

Aside from the lost ticketing and merchandising revenue, memberships and annual passes revenue are under increasing strain. Our Covid-19 tracker shows that a third of those owning a membership or annual pass from cultural or heritage organisation say they have already cancelled or are not renewing. Many more are considering doing so, with museums slightly more at risk (31% versus 27% for heritage organisations).

Age has a huge impact on the decision to cancel, with 84% of those over 55 having no intention to cancel while only a quarter of under 35s feel confident that they will renew or not cancel their memberships or annual passes. Londoners are the least loyal, with 72% having already or considering cancelling a museum membership.

So, how can venues continue to stay front of mind during an extended lockdown and prepare for a successful re-opening?

Many visitors forget that the majority of organisations in the sector are actually not-for-profit. Key revenue comes from a mix of ticketing and merchandising plus subsidies from Arts Councils or the National Lottery Heritage Fund. A large decrease in ticket and memberships revenue means many have increased their fundraising – from adding ‘donate now’ buttons and messages on their homepages to strategic email and marketing campaigns. With 11% claiming they have donated to a cultural organisation since mid-March (increasing to 17% among Londoners) these activities seem to have worked. Now more than ever before, cultural and heritage organisations need to talk about their charitable status to keep engagement high.

Rather than being cancelled, events are being re-programmed for later in the year or, increasingly, the following year; encouraging people to keep their tickets. Meanwhile teasers are very useful tactics to help keep momentum up and ward off challenging cash flow situations.

Social media live streaming has also proved a successful way to keep front of mind. Around one in six of us have engaged with cultural organisations since lockdown (which involves watching streamed content and following venues and organisations on social media). Londoners have been by far the most involved, with two thirds engaging with cultural organisations and other regions trailing behind at similar levels (c. 45%). A quarter of Londoners, for example, started following their favourite organisations on social media, 12% viewed a digital exhibition, 11% took a virtual tour or garden trail and 21% listened to podcasts.

A clear age divide is also noticeable: only 25% of those over 65 (30% of 55+) engaged with cultural organisations in any of those ways, with visiting websites for updates the most popular way to engage (11% of 55+). Three in five of those under 34 did, however, with a particular interest in podcasts (16%), access to educational resources (14%) and taking part in creative challenges (10%).

Many museums such as the British Museum, the National History Museum now offer virtual tours. Galleries offer digital exhibitions and displays and the Barbican has offered live streams followed by Q&As on Instagram: it’s never been so easy to watch performing art.

And thinking about cultural activities like music, theatre, museums or heritage sites, which, if any of the following, have people been doing since lockdown started?

Content aimed at educating, inspiring and entertaining from museums has proved to be a useful source for parents, with 1 in 5 having accessed the resource in this way. In April, the British Museum launched a revamp of its online collection, with over four million objects available. The project incorporates high levels of technology to maximise viewing, with enhanced viewing filters for improved search capabilities.

These could all be good tactics for reaching a captive audience who have said days out will be a priority purchase. Days out are highest on the agenda of Northerners (48%) and less of a priority for Londoners (with still a respectable 42%). Unsurprisingly days out will be one of the first thing families with children under 10 will want to buy (58%), even before booking holidays (43%).

The conditions need to be right before we all visit again, however. When asked when they would be ready to visit venues, only 20% of regular Day Outers replied they would return as soon as they can; the majority (66%) would want reassurance it is safe before to do so with many expecting safety measures expected to be put in place before they can return.

We also see that 91% would expect reduced capacity, with others asking for social distancing measures in place (83%), security guards making sure safety measures are adhered to (78%) and free hand sanitizer for visitors (78%). And two thirds would welcome a Covid-safe labelling system to reassure them the location is safe to visit.

This article was originally published in Museums + Heritage Advisor.

We will be updating our coronavirus tracker daily and weekly as this unprecedented pandemic unfolds. Please get in touch for more information.

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