Due to variant concern, DC theatergoers still reluctant to return, says new study

And 7 in 10 favor allowing only vaccinated patrons to attend.

Despite increased vaccination rates, concerns over the delta variant may be driving hesitation to return to the theater, according to a new study, posing a challenge for theaters planning to reopen in the fall. Limelight Insights by Shugoll, a national marketing research company in Rockville, Maryland, conducted an online survey with 526 DC-area theatergoers from July 13 to 15, 2021, on their intent to return to theaters. This is the fifth wave of this study for DC that has been tracking these issues since the pandemic began.

Graphic: DC Theater Arts

There is little change since March in when theatergoers will be willing to see shows indoors

Despite an incredibly high vaccination rate of 94% for those participating in the survey (theatergoers have higher incomes and education than the general public, two factors that impact that result), there is not much change since March in when theatergoers would be very willing to return to the theater. This likely is the result of growing concerns about the delta variant. Project Director Cara Wilken says, “Many DC-area theaters are planning fall openings. Unfortunately, many theatergoers will not be likely to return at that time, limiting earned income potential for the earliest shows.”

Today, only 52% are very likely to attend a show in October, a month when several theaters are set to reopen. Three and a half months ago, the number for October was 48%, not a statistically significant increase.

Still, the threshold where half of theatergoers are very willing to return has moved up one month in this wave, from November to October. But looked at another way, theaters must plan for the probability that almost half of DC’s theater audience will not be ready to attend in October, reducing earned income potential compared to pre-pandemic seasons. The months when a healthier 6 in 10 and 2 in 3 say they will be very likely to attend are January and March, respectively, unchanged from the previous wave.

Some DC theaters are targeting a September reopening. This month will be even more challenging than October as the percentage very likely to attend is only 45%, almost identical to the 44% in the last research wave.

Subscribers and more frequent theatergoers will return sooner

Theaters will need to rely on more frequent attenders, including subscribers, to fill seats early. At least half of frequent theatergoers in general, frequent nonprofit attenders specifically, and subscribers will very likely attend in September, a month earlier than the entire sample. These segments reach the 60% threshold two to three months before general theatergoers (subscribers and frequent theatergoers in November, frequent nonprofit theatergoers in October).

Theatergoers strongly support requiring vaccinations to attend and other safety protocols

On possible safety measures for reopening, Project Director Wilken notes, “Significant numbers of theatergoers favor socially distanced seating or limiting attendance to those vaccinated.” Specifically, 77% would like to see socially distanced seating. If this is not in place in October, for example, the number who would attend shows declines, but only slightly, from 52% to 47%. A total of 70% favor allowing only vaccinated patrons to attend, while 66% say attendance should be limited to those vaccinated plus people showing a negative COVID test. With early Broadway openings currently requiring vaccinations to attend, a significant percentage of the DC audience feel this is an appropriate reopening strategy.

As for masking, identical percentages would be favorable to either requiring all patrons to wear a mask (63%) or requiring only unvaccinated patrons to wear a mask (63%). Many fewer favor taking patron temperatures at the door (55%).

Local theatergoers who travel to see Broadway shows don’t plan to do so until spring 2022

Broadway has already begun reopening, with more shows scheduled to begin performances in August, September, and October. Visitors make up an important part of the Broadway audience. While DC-area residents may not necessarily act similarly to those in other states and foreign visitors, they are being cautious in planning trips to New York. Only 19% of those who attended a Broadway show during the three years prior to the pandemic say they are very likely to attend again in August, 25% in September, and 30% in October. You do not reach even 50% very likely to attend Broadway shows until May 2022. Project Director Wilken says, “These survey results should be seen as a caution to producers for quickly rebuilding Broadway visitor traffic.”

Methodology and additional information

This study was conducted using Limelight Insights by Shugoll’s proprietary panel. A total of 526 surveys were completed between July 13 and 15, 2021. Data are accurate within +/- 4% 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 nonprofit theater other than those that primarily present touring companies. For a copy of the Full Report or the Executive Summary go to http://unbouncepages.com/limelight-insights/


Graphic: DC Theater Arts

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