When theaters reopen, will DMV audiences return? Survey says it’s iffy.

In the wake of COVID-19, only a third of theatergoers intend to come back right away.

What follows is sobering news about the challenges ahead for the DMV theater community. We at DC Metro Theater Arts share this information in a spirit of solidarity and with determination to do all we can to help see us through. We welcome your comments below.  —John Stoltenberg

Shugoll Research, a national marketing research company in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted an online survey with 2,762 DC area theatergoers on their intent to return to the theater when it reopens after the coronavirus pandemic.

All theatergoers will not be ready to return when theaters reopen

Only about 1 in 3 (31%) say they are very likely to return immediately while about 1 in 5 (21%) are very unlikely. Around half (49%) suggest they will probably wait a few months or more before returning while only a quarter (25%) think they will attend right away. “This will be disappointing news for Washington area theaters who already lost their spring and potentially summer seasons” said Mark Shugoll, Ph.D., the study author. “Many theaters are counting on a strong relaunch to begin to offset the significant losses they suffered during their closures from the pandemic.”

Masked masks. Credit: DC Metro Theater Arts

Overall, theaters will likely see a net audience decline from previous seasons before the pandemic as more theatergoers say they will attend the theater less often now (27%) than more often (13%). Some good news for theaters is that the most frequent theatergoers are more prone to be very likely to attend immediately (41%), although this still represents a minority of frequent theater attenders. Interestingly, those in the most vulnerable age demographic for the virus (65 years and older) are not less likely to return immediately than those under 65. Since they may be more selective on what they see, about two thirds (65%) will rely on the opinions of friends and colleagues more than before and about one third (36%) more often on critics.

Sports teams will have similar challenges. The study also finds that only 32% of the sample is very likely to return immediately to sports venues. They are less inclined to attend indoor arenas like Capital One Arena (26% very likely to return immediately) than outdoor stadiums like Nationals Park and FedEx Field (37% very likely to return, still a concerning number).

The study additionally shows there is not a significant difference in the percentages very likely to return to theaters by venue size. The percent likely to return to the largest theaters (like the Kennedy Center, National Theater and Warner Theatre) is 29%, to medium size theaters like Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre is 30% and to smaller theaters like Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center is 34%. Although a similar number of Washington theatergoers who have attended Broadway shows in the last year would be very likely to return to Broadway (30%), Broadway theaters have the highest number very unlikely to return immediately (28%).

Health concerns are more important than economic concerns in whether to return to the theater

While economic factors have some impact on the likelihood of returning to theaters (25% fear a recession, 25% indicate their disposable income is down, 21% took a salary cut or lost their job, 20% say their investment portfolio was reduced), it is health concerns that give theatergoers the most pause about returning. Almost half (46%) are concerned about the possible impact on their health if they attend the theater and 42% realize a Covid-19 vaccine won’t yet be available when theaters reopen.

What would most likely increase their interest in returning is if a vaccine did exist (67%). The one thing theaters have control over and could do to get their customers back more quickly is cleaning and disinfecting before each performance (auditorium café, restrooms) (56%). Over 4 in 10 react positively to each of the following on their influence in returning: having hand sanitizers available throughout the theater (43%) and if every other seat was left empty for social distancing (43%), a factor that would cut revenues but could be conceivable given that smaller numbers will return immediately to the theater.

Attitudes toward returning to the theater may change closer to reopening

Mark Shugoll, Ph.D., CEO of Shugoll Research. Photo courtesy of Shugoll Research.

Dr. Shugoll adds, “The data in this study are very much impacted by the point in time it was conducted. As the pandemic progresses, views likely will change. Shugoll Research plans to track these attitudes over time.” Dr. Shugoll continues, “The results of this research may not contain the news theaters were hoping for, but it gives them real data to use in their planning. The arts community is a resilient one, and I feel many companies, though of course not all, will find a way to thrive in the post-pandemic world.”

Methodology and additional information

This study was conducted using Shugoll Research’s proprietary panel. A total of 2,762 surveys were completed between April 8 and 9, 2020. Data are accurate within +/- 2% at a 95% confidence level. Participants were required to attend at least two professional theater productions in a typical year, at least one of which must be at a theater other than those that primarily present touring companies (Kennedy Center, National Theatre, Warner Theatre). For a copy of the full report go to unbouncepages.com/shugollresearch.

See the Shugoll Research studies of New York/Broadway (“Many theatergoers in no hurry to go back to Broadway, new survey finds”) and the United States as a whole (“When shows go on again, audiences across America will be slow to show up, new survey says”).

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