At the end of March whilst we were in all in the throes of cancelling performances and watching the world as we know it collapse around us, I decided to help some of the cultural organisations I work with start to understand the likely impact of COVID-19 on their audiences. We created a short survey and asked their audiences to complete it.

Katy Raines © Abby Wilkes, 2019
Katy Raines
© Abby Wilkes, 2019

What we didn’t anticipate was the overwhelming level of support audiences wanted to offer us. In the first survey over 130,000 audiences from over 300 cultural organisations felt passionately enough to respond. From the Royal Opera House to Dundee Rep, Sadler's Wells to Theatr Clwyd, 9 out of 10 people told us how much they missed the opportunity to attend live events and support their local venue. And over 80% were seriously worried about whether the organisation they love will survive.

“I am keen to support both local and national cultural events and will book as soon as it is possible to do so. I am very concerned about the survival of my local venue.”

In the following weeks, we’ve continued to ask audiences what they think and how they are feeling. Having now analysed the results from over 200,000 people and read many hundreds of their comments, I can’t underestimate the apprehension, concern and confusion the pandemic has created for organisations and audiences in how to plan for “after the interval” and a return to live performances. Fewer than 1 in 5 are actively booking for events now and only 3 out of 10 would consider booking a ticket within the next three months.

What’s becoming clear from our second survey is that there is a tension between what audiences want from us and what is economically viable for most cultural organisations. Two thirds of audiences say they would return to venues with social distancing measures in place, perhaps as they have seen in pictures of concert halls and theatres in Europe over the last few weeks. Their comments show real frustration in why we can’t do this. 

“The sooner the better, mental health is very important to me, so the sooner we can get back to normality the better even if I have to wear as much PPE as the event stipulates” 

But of course in the UK, with considerably less state funding and such a reliance on a high proportion of ticket income, to perform to one third of the auditorium is all but impossible for organisations at both ends of the spectrum – the large commercial venues, and the small local ones. Audiences are struggling to understand this – so we either have to get better at explaining this, or we need to think again.

Ironically, despite their concerns and desperation to get back to live events, audiences are prepared to invest more, but say they are looking for us to be bold, brave and creative. 

“Whilst I feel cautious about indoor events without excellent social distancing and strict enforcement, I am very keen to support the venue’s survival in the future, and am likely to attend more safe performances than normal, and pay more, in order to ensure the venue’s' survival.” 

“Can't wait for things to start up again. Looking forward to innovative ideas that will no doubt develop the future of cultural events.”

8 out of 10 would be interested in online culture and 9 out of 10 in moving culture outdoors. They are willing to pay for both types of experiences. 

“I am missing going to the theatre so would welcome a change of format in order to still enjoy this form of entertainment and feel part of the community.”

“I’m definitely willing to try new experiences as I think it will be a long time before things go back to normal and we need to make the most of the current situation”

I anticipate that venues who do open with social distancing in place, such as HOME in Manchester, which has announced it will reopen in September, will be richly rewarded; as will the organisations who are finding innovative ways of creating and distributing their content in order to retain and develop audiences, and continue to be part of people’s lives; or the partnerships of large and small organisations working together to develop shared COVID-19-safe performance spaces – both inside and outdoors, and sharing equipment and expertise to create digital content.

Audiences are telling us now is not the time to be dark. It’s the time to invent, to create and to survive. We should listen to them.

Click here for the findings at a glance

Katy Raines, the author of this survey, is founding partner of Indigo, a specialist consultancy working in the Arts, Culture and Heritage sectors. She is regarded as one of the UK’s leading consultants on data-driven marketing for Cultural Organisations. She has developed and led research and implementation programmes for large and middle scale organisations throughout the UK and Europe.

After the Interval and Act 2 were run between 16th April and 21st June and has so far involved 350 cultural organisations. For more information and to download the reports, please visit their site.