Is your nonprofit or museum still operating under the assumption that most of the folks visiting zoos, aquariums, museums, and performing arts venues are doing so with their nuclear families? Think again. Data concerning visitor-serving organizations (VSOs) reveals that travel party constructs have evolved. While only seven years ago a majority of visitors attended VSOs with their nuclear families, the majority are now visiting with significant others.
Why does this matter? Well, if you don’t know who your audience is, then it is more difficult to target them or retain their support. And keep in mind: Your “audience” is a dynamic group comprised of both online and onsite persons, as well as would-be and actual visitors alike. In other words, just because you are marketing your nonprofit to families and households with children doesn’t necessarily mean that they comprise the majority of your audience.
In fact, my colleagues and I at IMPACTS have observed this evolving reality within many of our client VSOs. Several clients who have been predominantly marketing to their perceived, “traditional” base (i.e. the nuclear family) have had to adapt their engagement strategies to recognize the emergence of persons who visit without children.
To illustrate this change, I’ll present two sets of data: one for the U.S. composite audience (which includes travel party construct data for a representative sample of the total US population), and another for high-propensity visitors (HPVs, or those persons possessing the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that tend to suggest an increased likelihood to visit a VSO). One quick note: The data represent “discretionary consumer behaviors” – that is to say, it does not contemplate educational groups, field trips, and other group-motivated activities.
Let’s start by examining the change in travel party constructs for the overall U.S. population:
Notice that the dominant travel party construct has changed from “with family” to “with spouse.” Currently, nearly 50% of the overall U.S. population visiting a VSO is doing so without a child (quantified above in the “By self” + “With spouse” + “With friends” categories). This same cohort grew by 11% during the relatively brief tracking period!
Now let’s take a look to see with whom high-propensity visitors (HPVs, or, the folks that largely butter your bread) are attending organizations…
For HPVs, we witness a similar decline of people visiting with children…and, keep in mind, this behavior is amongst those persons most likely to visit your organization in the first place! Here are four noteworthy takeaways from the data:
1) The number of families attending VSOs has decreased
During the quantified duration, VSOs experienced a 10% decline in family visitation (from 41.8% in year 2006 to 37.5% in year 2012) and a 13% decline amongst HPV families. Part of this decline relates to our evolving demography – there is a corresponding decline in “birth over death rate” amongst the educated, affluent populations that have historically comprised many VSOs core audiences. Fewer children means fewer “traditional” families…so if your VSO’s primary selling point is “great for the kids,” then you may expect to see a fall off in your attendance numbers.
2) The number of folks attending VSOs as couples has increased
Among the overall US population, the percentage of people visiting VSOs with their spouses or significant others increased 14% during the assessed duration. For the same period, “HPV couple” visitation increased by 10%.
Many organizations are observing this increase in “couples” visiting VSOs and are tailoring their marketing efforts accordingly. At IMPACTS, we are often tasked by clients to assess the relative “favorability” (i.e. do people “like” the campaign) and “actionability” (i.e. how likely is the campaign to motivate visitation) of potential advertising campaigns, and what we increasingly find is that while “family-centric” advertising may risk engaging adults without children, more couples-focused messaging generally does not alienate family audiences. Why? The market has an intrinsic understanding that many VSOs are well-suited for families and children… often the “break-through” market for additional engagement is couples without children.
3) Grandparents are the new babysitters
Grandparents are increasingly important decision-makers when it comes to bringing a child to a VSO. This may be symptomatic of more dual-income households or of a broader societal trend toward more grandparents raising their grandchildren, but the prominence of grandparents as both heads of households and proxy parents is clear. Many VSOs have acknowledged this trend by re-imagining their family membership programs to be more contemplative of grandparents. Other organizations are adjusting their marketing and communication techniques to better engage this growing market segment.
4) The evolution of the travel party construct is not a museum phenomenon, but a reflection of the overall market
When you consider all of the data, the shifts that we’re observing in terms of travel party construct aren’t at all surprising. Rich, white folks – who still make up a substantial number of HPVs – are having fewer children. From a societal point of view, the traditional “family” has undeniably evolved. Baby boomers – another demographic that has a high percentage of traditional HPVs – are bringing their grandchildren to their favorite museums, operas, and botanical gardens. And, of course, the Baby Boomers are a huge generation – so a corresponding increase in people visiting with grandchildren makes chronological sense. Generation Y – the largest generation of all – is taking over the market, having children later in life (and, thus, are more likely to visit with friends or significant others), and also having children out of wedlock (and, thus, are more likely to visit without a spouse).
At IMPACTS, we develop specific data for our VSO partners and it yields very similar findings across the board. In nearly every case, the organization is a tad surprised to learn that while they had their noses to the grindstone, the world turned. These changes affect not only how VSOs target audiences for marketing purposes, but also how they cultivate members, gather financial supporters, create appropriate programs, and engage with online and onsite audiences.
Still not a believer? Though the percentage of movement may seem small, it is indicative of a significant trend. If you can, take a moment to visually survey your current visitors. Suddenly, you may realize that the world is changing and it’s taking your museum with it.
*Top image photo credit belongs to Margaret Middleton’s On Exhibit
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