Thoughts for the industry on Canadians’ anticipated re-opening behaviours 

Summary: Canadians anticipate resuming use of their cultural institutions and amenities, especially if these institutions were previously important to them.

Key takeaways: The more physically intimate the experience, the more wary Canadians will be; super-users are ready to return – communicate with them about what you’re doing and how you’re adapting; a substantial number of Canadians say they wait longer before resuming routines – communicate with them about their new requirements  institutions; reopening will not be a straight line, nor will the need for remote engagement disappear – plan to communicate for crisis after re-opening and plan to maintain your virtual, digital community.  

As governments across the country begin slowly lifting COVID-19 physical-distancing measures, public-facing businesses and institutions are being asked to map a new way forward. For many, this means reimagining the nature of their business and learning about their target audiences all over again.

The case of public cultural institutions (museums, theatres, libraries, cinemas, live concert venues) and that of public amenities (pools, parks, zoos) are interesting.  The former deliver cultural experiences in a conspicuously public space, and the latter curate experiences of public space for cultural consumption (excepting pools, which nonetheless offer the public an experience)  Though each offers something unique and most only have ‘competition’ from other amenities and institutions, neither is valuable without a public willing to confront the publicness of their activity.  Many rely on admissions and usage revenues to supplement the public money that funds their operation, and most – being institutions or amenities of public service – don’t have the luxury of ‘quick pivot’ opportunities.

To help understand what support such institutions or amenities might need during ‘re-opening’, H+K’s Data + Analytics team conducted a nationwide survey of the public’s anticipated behaviours when the public cultural institutions and public amenities they use begin to open their doors again.[1]  The results highlight some important considerations for municipalities and cultural organizations. Anticipating Canadians’ disposition toward public and cultural participation over the medium-term might be the key difference in shaping Canada’s cultural and public landscapes in the long-term.

As always, we’re inviting a continued dialogue on these topics, and have more data to share and analyze in a deeper-dive conversation.  This is a great time for cultural institutions to start a dialogue with regular and occasional patrons to find out what they would need to feel safe enough to go back to their routines.  H+K is uniquely positioned to be able to help facilitate this.

A first note on the findings

Canadians are cautiously eager to get back ‘out there’

A substantial number of Canadians believe their province is opening too quickly  Canadians, however, feel comfortable resuming some, if not all, pre-pandemic routines; few respondents replied they were no longer interested (with some exceptions) in activities they’d previously enjoyed occasionally. Canadians seem ready to resume their cultural and public and commercial lives but may not pick them up exactly as they left them.

Re-open what? And when? The Public Intimacy Index

Canadians will resume activities they valued and experienced most – but even the most ardent fans won’t risk public intimacy

Canadians, it seems, are projecting to resume only those activities that matter most to them – that map with their pre-pandemic habits and routines.  In almost all cases, the most routine-user of amenities and institutions was most likely to resume their routine immediately.  And those who pursue an activity less frequently are more apt to defer resuming it.

In the short term, cultural institutions that market their offerings can rely on their ‘20%’ – their superusers and subscribers that drive the lion’s share of revenue.  And while this is good news for museums, libraries, parks and zoos (who will see an early return of their most regular users), the trend is broken with pools, cinemas, theatres, and music-venues.  40% and 35% of the ardent (> weekly users) theatre and music fans, responded that they were no longer interested at all in live theatre or live music.  For cinemas, theatres, music venues, and pools, the most common response, even among regular users (>monthly users), was that the public was content to wait for 100% safety before re-engaging.  Those institutions and amenities that cannot rely on their ‘20%ers’, have a chance to pivot and grow their ‘80%’, and to structure the new normal experience in terms that match public expectations.

It seems intimacy matters; in places where crowds are tightest (theatres, music venues, cinemas), or where bodies are most exposed (pools), public sensitivity to the threat of Covid-19 bristles.  So while museums stage an intimate experience, and parks bring proximity and intimacy with nature, these experiences don’t depend on risking public intimacy in the same way a low-light experience does (concert, movie, play), or anxiety about contagion.

Parents: Do they need a ‘cultural’ lifeboat?

Parents show particular apprehension about returning

Despite anecdotes about parents having been driven to distraction with work and homeschooling children amid a global pandemic, there is little difference in intention to resume cultural activities seen between respondents with children in the home and those without. One exception to this rule is sporting events, where parents are more cautious about resuming their usual level of activity than people without children.

While it may be tempting to appeal to parents by offering child-friendly programming, like most other Canadians, parents are waiting for assurances that cultural activities can be resumed safely before getting back out there.

British Columbia

Localizing the findings: a less-impacted jurisdiction

British Columbians are significantly more likely than other Canadians to say that they have confidence in their province’s re-opening plan. This could be credited to the daily efforts of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix to keep British Columbians updated and involved in efforts to flatten the curve, or due to the extent to which B.C.’s pandemic has been largely out of the public eye, limited to specific facilities like meat processing plants and long term care homes. Whatever the cause, British Columbia is the outlier nationally, with 72% of British Columbians saying the province’s approach is “just right”, compared to 56% of Canadians nationally, and – at the opposite end of the spectrum – just 39% of Albertans and 45% of Quebeckers who say the same.

British Columbians are also significantly less likely to say that the pandemic is spreading and getting worse (60% of British Columbians vs. 74% of Canadians, 77% of Ontarians and Quebecers).

This gives British Columbia’s cultural institutions a leg up, over their counterparts elsewhere in Canada. B.C.’s institutions have a public that is generally comfortable with the speed of re-opening, and more optimistic about their success in flattening the curve. They are also operating in a jurisdiction that requires all businesses to develop and publicly post a COVID-19 mitigation plan, at a time when Canadians will be foregoing activities that they believe they cannot do safely. By taking advantage of the opportunity to show potential visitors and the public what steps they have taken to keep patrons as safe as possible, B.C.’s cultural institutions can offer reassurance that they thought through the steps necessary to operate safely and have measures in place to effectively do so. With most Canadians – including British Columbians – wanting to wait until it is safe to return to cultural institutions, a business’ mitigation plan can act as an important conversation starter to demonstrate safety to potential clients before they set foot inside the building.

And in Québec?

Localizing the findings: a highly-impacted jurisdiction

The most affected province differs from the rest of the country. Despite very high rates of confidence in the government, which vary between 85% and 95%, Quebecers are divided on the reopening of the economy. 45% of them believe that the pace of opening is “just right” and 44% believe that the recovery is too fast. This data should impact Premier Legault’s future decisions; a good bet that Culture Minister Nathalie Roy will have to make decisions in this context for the culture industry.

Good news for municipalities: libraries and parks should see their regular users already ready to return. Quebec municipalities should keep this in mind as they prepare. But no announcement has been made on this subject by the Legault government, but it would be wise to prepare for it, nonetheless.

Unlike other Canadians, Quebecers, seem eager to return to the movie theatres: at least 44% of customers who used to go frequently, compared to 14% for the rest of the country. Their interest in returning may indicate the importance of engaging with the government and anticipating their return.

Less frequent users comprise the majority of respondents. Although the revenue they generate is lower than the power-users, their actions will have an impact on the number of people who will visit cultural organizations. Museums and concert halls will have to deal with this large number of consumers when they open, unlike the rest of the country. For museums, 50% of their less-frequent visitors are willing to go back when possible.

The Canadian landscape going forward

Regional differences abound

Canadians’ confidence in their governments plans to re-open the economy is contingent on where they live. For Quebecers, the province most affected by Covid-19, returning to normal may take longer than for British Columbians, who have fared much better. Regional differences aside, our research demonstrates that many Canadians are eager to jump back into activities and routines they cherished before the Covid-19 related lockdowns and closures. Museums, libraries, parks and zoos, already an important part of many Canadian cities pre Covid-19, can continue to play an important role in the reestablishment of normal for many Canadians.  The data tells us that while Canadians in all provinces have lingering concerns, particularly when it comes to exposing their children to further COVID risks, there is an underlying appetite to get back to the enriching and engaging cultural activity. The key for these institutions will be finding ways to reach and interact with their audiences and during re-opening in ways that fit with the safety-conscious approach Canadians are looking for.

[1] Hill+Knowlton Strategies accessed Leger Opinion (LEO)’s online panel to survey 994 Canadians over the period of May 1st to 4th, 2020.  The sample was randomly selected based on quotas to reflect Census data for age, gender and province. The data was weighted to ensure representativeness by age, gender and province. An associated margin of error for a probability-based sample of n=994 is ±3.1%, 19 times out of 20.

Authored by: Michael Sauvé, Jordan Owens, Maxime Bélanger and Peter Wilton