The last six months have seen audiences returning to our venues and sites in a steady flow. But, just as hard-pressed organisations are getting back on track, our research shows the cost-of-living crisis is likely to have the feared impact on audiences and how much they spend, compounding the budget squeeze on fuel bills and other overheads. And of course, it will also affect the well-being of our communities.
Although there is no silver bullet, we need to follow the evidence to try and ride out this new wave of uncertainty and play our part in addressing real hardship.
The calm before
After a slow start to the year, audience numbers have been rising. According to the Cultural Participation Monitor – The Audience Agency’s ongoing survey of the nations’ changing views about cultural and creative visits and activity - the number of people who have been out engaging in cultural activities has risen from 70% in the spring to over 90% in the autumn. In fact, 61% even thought it was “time to get back to normal”.
This also means that a significant minority think the opposite. The Monitor is still showing that, while some people want to get out more - especially younger, cosmopolitan culture-junkies and families - other, mostly older, folk are still saying they’re planning on doing less in future. The overall net difference across the whole sector looks to be down between 10 and 20% - accounting for many organisations’ poor visitor numbers compared with pre-Covid performance.
This effect is more acute in some areas than others, with people living outside large metropolitan centres slower to return to former habits. There are also differences between the four UK nations, where we can see that significant variation in Covid health policies have cast a long shadow.
Regional approaches to, and timings of, lockdowns during Covid lead not only to different health outcomes but have also had an ongoing effect on people’s confidence to return to cultural activities. Audiences in Wales and Northern Ireland have been slower to return than those in England, while audiences in Scotland have been most reluctant of all, presumably as a reaction to the most restrictive of all the Covid measures.
Across the nations, then, audiences have not yet grown back and many organisations are more reliant on a smaller core than before.
In this environment, what the Monitor has to tell us about the cost-of-living crisis is deeply concerning. Almost 50% of people said that they are worse off now than they were pre-pandemic, 86% are worried about the effects of the cost-of-living crisis and an alarming 73% expect “to do fewer paid-for entertainment and leisure activities over the next year”. Moreover, a startling 92% people think they will be cutting back specifically on entertainment outside of the home.
And while audience stalwarts like the older, well-heeled Audience Spectrum groups Metroculturals and Commuterland Culturebuffs are less likely to be worried about rising costs, it is those audiences who have been most active since lockdown, most prominently younger people and those with young families, that are going to be worst affected by the recession.
The Monitor shows clearly that people in the Experience Seekers, Trips & Treats, Dormitory Dependables, and Frontline Families Audience Spectrum groups are more likely to say they expect their leisure spend to be hit by the cost-of-living crisis. These are the very groups who have been returning disproportionately strongly to in-person attendance over the past year, posing a serious potential threat to the sector's post-Covid recovery, which has so far fared better than many feared.
Batten down the hatches
Failing to keep connected over an extended period could have devastating incremental effects on the shape and size of our core audiences. We have already seen habit-change among less committed audiences following extended lockdowns, with many occasional attenders not returning.
So, the question is: despite our own financial difficulties, what can we do to reduce real and perceived financial barriers to engagement? Where organisations can, they need to prioritise the long game over short-term gain. We need to test out strategies to keep audience relationships alive for tomorrow, even if that is at the expense of maximising revenue today. It’s worth turning then to the evidence to start planning how to shelter in place…
Certainly, older regulars are more likely to be in the mortgage-free, retiree/stable high-end job groups least affected by spiralling interest rates. This group will be relatively well-off, despite the tendency of recession to push everyone towards belt-tightening. If a reasonable proportion of your audience falls into this category, you might want to consider messaging and packaging that communicates good value (rather than discounts): people are less likely to be in the mood for a splurge.
Try out all-in packages, dynamic pricing and ‘going local’ – incentivising ‘what’s on your doorstep’ – which might prove especially effective given that 73% people said they now expect to spend more of their leisure time close to home.
Emergency supply kit
It’s worth noting that people in general were very supportive of cultural organisations during the pandemic and core audiences were more likely to donate and support than previously. Older high-engagers are also passionate about others having access to arts and culture. Try a ‘fun bank’ – asking people to donate to help others less well off than themselves access tickets etc, perhaps as part of an optional ticket price.
As we’ve said, the groups most likely to have propped up the returning wave of audiences post-pandemic, are also those most likely having to make some tough economies. Unlike our current government, your organisation may need to target its sparse resources carefully so that they really reach those who need it most.
Traditional discount schemes and the like nearly always benefit super-engagers who know how to play your system – the core audiences that we have already established you are looking to help you stay afloat. Which means they are probably not the best way to improve access for those most vulnerable to the crisis.
Warm, safe spaces
Obviously, we are not about to means test – or make anyone feel like they’ve been means-tested – so you need to think about smart options, remembering that younger people and families with young children are among those worst affected.
Think about offering more targeted and meaningful discounts specifically to young people - linked to and through - local organisations. Obviously, schools and colleges, but also large employers, hospitals and cultural freelancers, to name a few. You could also look at ‘radical pricing’ methods which suit younger people – like last-minute discounts or free tickets – or positioning your venue as an open warm space, allowing people to bring their own food and drink, or offering full family day out packages that make clear they come with no hidden costs.
Maybe you were one of the many organisations across the nations who forged new relationships with your local area through the pandemic, as a hang-out spot or warm space, or who repurposed your skills entirely to become a community hub or distribution centre. Or perhaps you pivoted to supporting and providing for your audiences digitally more effectively than you could have anticipated. Whatever you learned from the last crisis, it seems it is already time to put those lessons into practice again if we and our audiences are to survive the coming storm.
So to recap, here are the five things that we recommend you start thinking about as the storm approaches:
- Where possible, prioritise the long game, keeping audience relationships alive for tomorrow, even if that is at the expense of maximising revenue today.
- Focus on communicating good value to your core, more affluent, audiences – these are the ones who will keep you above water enough to help others to keep engaging.
- Consider radical pricing options for the audience groups (youth and families) who are most vulnerable to losing out on arts participation entirely during the pandemic.
- In your messaging, take advantage of people’s intentions to attend more locally, as well as potentially teaming up with local groups to keep harder-up audiences engaged.
- Base your plans on evidence – even if it is anecdotal – remembering lessons learned in recent years and drawing on that experience to strengthen your next crisis response.
This article was originally published in Arts Professional as part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.
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How The Audience Agency is innovating to help art galleries find out more about their visitors in a fun and interactive digital way.