Many theatergoers in no hurry to go back to Broadway, new survey finds

When New York–area theaters reopen in the wake of COVID-19, half of theatergoers say health concerns will keep them from returning right away.

Shugoll Research, a national marketing research company in Bethesda, Maryland, is releasing a new study of theatergoers and their intent to return to the theater when it reopens after the coronavirus pandemic. This is Phase II of the study, focusing on New York and Broadway. It follows the Phase I study of DC theatergoers (see “When theaters reopen, will DMV audiences return? Survey says it’s iffy”) and is followed by the Phase III national study (“When shows go on again, audiences across America will be slow to show up, new survey says”).

All NY theatergoers will not be ready to return when theaters reopen 

New York is the capital of theatergoing in this country as well as the epicenter of the pandemic. When theaters reopen, whenever that is, will New Yorkers be ready to occupy their seats? This study suggests that many will return to something they love, but not immediately. It will be more of a trickle back, although with a slightly bigger flow initially than in DC. This is based on the following findings:

  • Only about 4 in 10 theatergoers (41%, but higher than the 31% in DC) say they are very likely to return when theaters reopen, while almost 1 in 5 (17%, vs. 21% in DC) are very unlikely.
  • But more New Yorkers, still living through the pandemic, will take an initial wait and see attitude about returning. Considerably more than half (58%, higher than the 49% in DC) suggest they will probably wait at least a few months or more before attending, while only about a fifth (21%, vs. 25% in DC) think they will attend right away if there is something they want to see.
A Broadway seating chart with masked masks. Image: DC Metro Theater Arts.

Study author Mark Shugoll says, “This will provide challenges to Broadway shows whose revenues might be slow to reach breakeven levels and nonprofits counting on a needed influx of earned income. New Yorkers want their theater back, but they will be cautious in making that happen.”

There is a particular hunger to return to Broadway. When the season closed down, it was during the peak for openings with ten still scheduled before the Tony Award deadline. New York theatergoers are considerably more likely to return to Broadway theaters (45% very likely, 19% very unlikely) than to other New York theaters. Still, even if all of these people follow through and attend, along with some of those who are on the margins, it means almost half of theatergoers will not return when theaters first open.

Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway nonprofits will be harder hit. For Off-Broadway, including Off-Broadway nonprofits, only 38% are very likely to return immediately with 24% very unlikely.

RELATED: “Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle is acting as an advocate for the theater community,” interview by New York City critic Deb Miller 

Some good news for theaters is that the most frequent theatergoers are more prone to be very likely to attend immediately (58%), although this still suggests that a significant number of them will not be ready to return. Also good: once they start coming again, many theatergoers plan to attend the theater as much or more than in other years, although the reverse is true for those most vulnerable to the virus, people 55 and older, who represent an important theater demographic.

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

While economic factors have significant impact on the likelihood of returning to theaters (48% fear a recession, 46% indicate their disposable income is down, 41% say their investment portfolio was reduced, 39% took a salary cut or lost their job), it is health concerns that give theatergoers the most pause about returning. Around 6 in 10 are concerned there may be a second wave of the virus (64%), that a vaccine won’t yet be available when theaters reopen (58%), and that their health may be at risk from attending (57%). While all age groups say health concerns are their biggest worry, the younger segments are more likely to name each of the economic factors than older (55+) respondents.

What would most increase interest in returning is if a vaccine did exist (73%), which is something, of course, well beyond the control of theaters. The most important things theaters have control over and could do to get their customers back more quickly are cleaning and disinfecting before each performance (auditorium, café, restrooms) (57%), if every other seat was left empty for social distancing (55%), having hand sanitizers available throughout the theater (53%), having facemasks available (51%), requiring all in the audience to wear facemasks (51%), and if one’s temperature was taken at the door before allowing entry (49%).

Attitudes toward returning to the theater may change closer to reopening

Mark Shugoll. 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 be disappointing to theater management in New York, but it gives them real data to use in their planning. Knowing what to expect, rather than just surmising what they think, will lead to better decisions about re-opening.”

Methodology and additional information

This study was conducted using a national panel. A total of 300 surveys from New York–area residents were completed between April 17 and 24, 2020. Data are accurate within +/- 6% 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 in New York City, either on Broadway, at an Off-Broadway nonprofit, or at a commercial Off-Broadway theater. For a copy of the full report or the executive summary go to unbouncepages.com/shugollresearch.

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