by Lisa Mackay
In Alberta, the COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, and life seems to be heading towards a new version of normal. As arts organizations plan for a September re-opening, a year and a half of pandemic life means this is not your typical start of a season. The National Arts Centre has prepared an excellent Support for Safe Re-opening to Canadian Performing Arts Sector with a series of tools and recommendations on auditing, communicating, and adapting with your performers, staff, and audience members. As well, programs like POST Promise are helping to create consistent messaging that consumers can trust in any establishment. The factual communication of safety measures is crucial in welcoming back audiences. However, tone, content, and delivery must be carefully planned in the coming months to address the human side of a ‘return to normal.’ As Jennifer Peterson reflected a year ago on the National Arts Marketing Project blog, this “begins with understanding your patrons’ psyches in ways you have never had to before. It’s a safe bet that almost all of your patrons are conflicted to some degree: Secure and insecure. Confident and cautious. What they need is for you to make them feel comfortable enough to engage your organization with confidence. To do this, you have to understand the patron mindset and acknowledge how it may have changed.” For this article, we looked at studies and research on audience attitudes done locally, nationally, and internationally, to determine what kinds of communications and messaging would be most effective as you invite patrons back to live performances and experiences. Below are a few of the themes that have emerged, tailored for Alberta audiences. Focus on comfort and safety Stone-Olafson has been tracking and reporting on audience sentiments throughout the pandemic, and we have seen comfort levels at returning to regular life fluctuate in accordance with the infection rates, case numbers, and restriction levels. In their most recent report, they state "there is a cadence to the psychology of Albertans emerging where we can start to understand what people need and what they’ll do based on the news cycle." As we are currently at a level of few mandated restrictions and are seeing numbers of vaccinated people rise and infections slow dramatically, the mood has become more positive and enthusiastic about returning to normal. According to the Nanos research study, “The proportion of indoor culture-goers who are ready to attend in-person indoor arts and cultural performances immediately after businesses are reopened continues to increase.” However, after a year and a half of associating large groups of people with a need for caution, the comfort levels of audiences will take some time to fully return to normal. Communications messaging should outline clearly and confidently the measures your organization has taken to keep audiences safe, and spare no detail. Patrons must feel full confidence that you take their safety seriously, and have spent time, thought, energy, and money on strategies and measures to keep them safe. Be as visually descriptive as possible of what their experience will look like when they return, using images, photos, illustrations, and testimonials to help your patrons imagine themselves feeling comfortable and safe in your care. The report from PACT (Professional Association of Canadian Theatres), “Patrons greatly appreciated ongoing communications from the theatres and detailed information specific to health and safety protocols is well received.” In Alberta, the roller coaster of restrictions and infection numbers has left people more entrenched in their ideal levels of comfort, with many at more extreme ends of the spectrum. Measures such as masks and distancing have been polarized and politicised, so it will be helpful to know where your audience sits on this spectrum, and communicate your safety expectations in a clear, neutral way.
Keep it positive There is growing optimism as numbers fall and restrictions are lifted, and people are showing great enthusiasm for getting back to the things they most enjoy with others. According to the PACT report states: “A significant majority of respondents are very eager to return to attending live performing arts events and expect to be purchasing tickets and subscriptions at the same, if not slightly higher, than pre-pandemic levels.” Even when their optimism is clouded with some hesitancy to let down their guard and with an eye on variant strains of Covid-19, this ray of light must be seen and nurtured. Remind your audiences of the positive feelings they have missed by not being able to attend your organization. Remind them of how happy they will be to return rather than focusing your messaging on how happy you will be to see them again. What are the sounds, sights, emotions, and thoughts that they have been missing for the last sixteen months? Guide them through any unease with descriptions of how safe they will feel and by using these key emotional descriptors to help them feel excited to return. Stone-Olafson recommends “reassuring, positive and productive approaches are likely to resonate more than ones that feed into the negative emotions, challenge audiences or reinforce impatience.” Keep it local The public is very aware of business and companies that have struggled and/or closed due to the pandemic, and there is great enthusiasm for supporting local organizations both during restrictions and after opening. “Aligning arts programming with local community needs is paramount—whether through indoor or outdoor programming, virtual arts engagement, or a mix of opportunities,” reported the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. This spirit is strong in Alberta, and it makes sense to articulate your organization's ties to the community it serves. Flexibility is key After living through so many months of restrictions and uncharted territory, people have been able to identify the things they truly value and enjoy in life. Some of these will be things that they only encountered during the pandemic that may remain, such as being able to enjoy the extra time it took to commute to and from work, being able to consume entertainment on their schedule and on-demand, and slowing down the pace of life. Many valued experiences on their list will have been solidified by how much they were missed, such as live music, shared performance experiences, and in-person experiences with art. It will be worth building flexibility into your offerings and programming, and in your messages. After being freed from the bounds of their usual pre-pandemic schedules, many patrons may balk at the idea of choosing a night out many months ahead of time. Others may excitedly purchase tickets but be overwhelmed by the idea of being in such a large group of people when the time comes to attend. Being able to accommodate changes of plans or provide the content digitally rather than in person are great points to have considered and planned for in advance. According to Stone-Olafson, “over half of Albertans are willing to support an organization financially without a full guarantee of the experience but do not want to be forced.” Hybrid models of programming on one hand and flexible ticketing and donation policies on the other will win over patrons who are wavering in their decision-making. The Stone-Olafson report also states “Previous research tells us that robust cancellation and refund policies are still required for transparency but among the preferred methods of financial support that Albertans are willing to consider, most have an inherent flexibility to them – customers can pay or utilize on their own terms.” Focus on Meaning As described above, this extended period of isolation has inspired many people to give more thought than ever to the things they define as important in their lives. There is a desire post-pandemic to prioritize meaningful experiences over business, family over unnecessary work, and health and quality of life over constant stress and worry. The arts sector is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this sentiment, as arts experiences are often meaningful in content, enjoyable in their shared nature, and activities that engender well-being and happiness. Stone-Olafson recommends “as you appeal to the motivations of Albertans to re-engage, consider elevating the messages focused on care and wellbeing as these are rising in priority. Consider how to design experiences and deliver content that highlights these themes.” How can you include families in your experiences? Will you perhaps offer babysitting? Parallel programming? Family seating? What other ways can you highlight the intangible wellness benefits of the arts experiences you offer? Themes of care and wellness can also be linked directly to your core mandate and values statements. According to the report on returning to the arts by the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, “hearkening back to the mission and artistic vision of your organization can lend momentum and vitality to your reopening strategy.” Reinforcing the values you support and the links you provide to a common humanity will go a long way in making returning and new audiences feel inspired to return and make live arts experiences a priority. The great news in all of these research reports is that culture-goers have missed the arts and are eager to return. While the fall will be a period of adjustment for everyone, it will also be a time for celebration and gratitude. Emotions will run high as we all take in that first live arts experience in sixteen months. Try to capture this joy in photos, video, and text to share with patrons, but above all, soak it in and enjoy it! I look forward to seeing to all in the galleries, theatres, and concert halls. We are planning a webinar for August around re-opening; considerations, contingency plans, messaging and logistics. If you are interested in attending, stay tuned to our social media channels, and if you would like to share your experiences in any of the above, please send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The report for the sixth phase of research into Alberta audiences by Stone-Olafson has been posted on their website: stone-olafson.com/insights/experienceeconomy-results.