Thinkwell’s 2017 Guest Experience Trend Report

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The desire for fun and entertainment soars as Americans grapple with social unrest and division in 2017so what does this mean for LBE and cultural attractions now and in 2018?

FOR THINKWELL’S 2017 GUEST EXPERIENCE TREND REPORT, we decided to explore what is motivating Americans to seek out location-based entertainment (LBE) and cultural attractions in today’s era of political uncertainty, cultural divides, and increased stress. We polled more than 1,600 respondents across the US to break down what is driving guests to LBE experiences, what is impacting their visitation frequency, and how they are thinking about visiting these venues in 2018, and we’ve identified key implications at both local and national levels.

“We’d heard anecdotally that destinations were encountering more vocal patrons. People wanting pure escapism versus people wanting more challenging engagement,” said Cynthia Sharpe, Principal, Museums and Cultural Attractions at Thinkwell. “We were curious, was there data to back this up, or were perceptions skewed? What we found is that not only do people still want fun and entertainment, but there’s a marked uptick in usage in 2017 and intent to visit next year. We also uncovered fascinating results when it comes to minority engagement across LBE and cultural attractions, as well as the drive for more community involvement at the local level.”

Prior to the survey, Thinkwell had heard from a cross section of institutions that they were encountering a real dichotomy in visitors and that chasm was growing. On the one hand, they heard from patrons that they were coming to museums as a pleasurable escape and were put off by exhibits on challenging, topical content, such as global climate change or controversial historical periods. On the other, they also heard from patrons demanding just that type of content, feeling it’s the role of a museum to tackle the “tough topics” like global warming or racism. Museums voiced that they felt stuck, and were unsure if it was a case of “a few loud voices” or if, really, the chasm was widening.

The data informed Thinkwell’s Trend Report that overall, people are going to these places for fun, entertainment, and to engage together as a family. “Escape” also ranked high. This doesn’t mean people don’t also want a deep and resonant experience, but it does mean that it isn’t as strong a driver. Museums shouldn’t shy away from tackling the hard stories, but they should keep in mind that visitors are still looking for a pleasurable time.So what does this mean for LBE and cultural attractions in the upcoming year? How can we make these experiences more accessible?

There’s a huge amount of fantastic work going on in the museum community right now about authentic inclusion within museums—and a huge percentage of minority respondents indicating they plan on going even more frequently in 2018 underscores the need for this. Museums, as well as other LBE experiences, have an incredible opportunity before them: by reaching out to and meaningfully including diverse community voices in their strategic, exhibition, and programming processes, they can build genuine relationships and co-create experiences that both resonate with and reflect their audiences. It’s not enough to talk about minorities in exhibits they have to be actively involved in the process.

On an even more basic level, museums, attractions, and LBE in general would be wise to also look at staff training and policies, informational materials, and signage to make sure their spaces are welcoming to everyone. There’s a plethora of incidents and examples of casual racism in museums, rooted in stereotypes and cultural strictures of “who belongs” in a museum and how you should behave in one. MASS Action, a diverse working group spearheaded by the Minneapolis Institute of Art that focuses on museums as places of social transformation, has great resources on these issues. If cultural and entertainment experiences, and museums in particular, take the time and put in the hard work now to address diversity and inclusion, they’ll will be better poised to capitalize on the uptick in minority visitorship reflected in our data.

Finally, this is great news for local community economies. We’ve known for a long time that museums, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, amusement parks, and other attractions are job creators. With more people taking advantage of leisure time offerings, that also means more money going into these attractions—which in turn leads to more jobs and increased investment by these venues on new construction, marketing, and more. This is a huge potential opportunity for communities to work together on strategies to leverage this increase in attendance and create new offerings, such as art fairs, performance festivals, and Third Thursday and First Friday programming. People want fun, they want to enjoy themselves, and they’re looking for more ways to hang out with friends and family: communities can build on their existing attractions base to create something truly authentic, enticing, and exciting.