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Covid-19 – An opportunity for the Cultural sector?

Covid-19 – An opportunity for the Cultural sector?

Case study: Italy

The current economic crisis could be  the most severe since the second world war and may be comparable to the great depression of 1929. At the peak of the first pandemic wave, in just a few weeks, unemployment rates all over the world rose by dozens of points and it may take quite a while for the labor market to go back to the pre-covid indexes.  

The recreation and culture sectors are among the most affected by the current emergency. The new crisis has hit precisely at a time when it was slowly emerging from a black five-year period that began following the 2008 international financial crisis and lasted until the Italian financial crisis of 2013 with a significant decrease in the resources committed by local administrations and at the same time the contraction of household spending which had fallen by 4.6%. (Annual Report Federculture 2019)

The spending of Italian households in the sector has risen by 13.6% since 2013, settling in 2018 at 6.7% of their total expenditure, a figure which is still lower than that of the European average which stands at 8.5%. An important driving force for the recovery of families is represented by the museum sector and archaeological sites: since 2013 the attendance of museums has increased by 23% (+ 3.4 million visitors) and that of archaeological sites by 33% (+ 3.9 million).

Mindful of the past crisis, and in the light of the consequences of the worldwide epidemic of Coronavirus, the alarm went off for the culture sector with dramatic prospects for companies in the sector. In the light of past experience, it is necessary to analyze its current state and identify potential growth prospects in order to be able to cope with an inevitable decrease in visitors and funding due to the current situation.

The Italian cultural heritage complex boasts about 5000 museums and similar institutions open to the public. In 2018, the all-time high of visitors was reached, exceeding the threshold of 128 million people, a figure that was constantly increasing (L’Italia dei musei, 12/2019 ISTAT). This is a significant number, far higher than those of the rest of Europe (La valorizzazione del patrimonio artistico e culturale in Italia: Confronti internazionali, divari territoriali, problemi e prospettive Beretta, Firpo, Migliardi, Scalise – Questioni di Economia e Finanza, Banca d’Italia 11/2019), a wealth that has an important multiplier effect on the territory but whose potential is not fully exploited and leaves ample room for progress.

The demographic groups

Our country still lags far behind in the ability to attract the attention of various age groups. In 2017, among under 24, the number of those who visited at least one museum or an archaeological site or a monument was below 50% (in France they are more two out of three). And among over-sixty, fewer than one in four attend them at least once a year (Annuario Statistico 2018, ISTAT). In the third age these figures are even more significant, museums and exhibitions are deserted by the over seventy-five year olds, 9 out of 10 stay at home!

Offers differentiated by age group – young people

Speak their language

The creation of itineraries and exhibitions for families and young people and a chance to interact using technology, with audio guides with content suitable for children and the use of multimedia such as visual recognition and interactive gaming will allow whole families to enjoy the visit.

User generated content

The modern word of mouth, in technological jargon “User generated content” (UGC), or the content produced by the users themselves who thus become ambassadors of the museum. This is completely free advertising that has very high satisfaction values ​​and that sees visitors participating and not just considered as passive audiences. Over 90% of consumers trust advice from family and friends more than any other form of advertising, 79% say that advice from acquaintances (UGC) has a significant impact on their purchases. These contents can then be relaunched through awareness and marketing campaigns with extremely positive results.

Differentiated pricing policy

According to the Italian Institute of Statistics  (Istat), the absence of differentiated pricing policies is one of the main causes of the expulsion of young people from museums. Ensuring access to the youngest groups is an investment for the future, as consumers of art and culture are loyal customers who will return. Interacting with them on their social channels by offering free access, or discounts for young people or family tickets is a system

Opening hours

In Italy the opening hours of many museums are rigid, greater flexibility, with evening openings for example, would make museums and exhibitions more accessible even to those

Initiatives for the elderly

Although the Covid 19 crisis has been able to break down barriers by regressing the technophobia especially present among elderly people, we must not be fooled and the technological gap remains wide. According to Istat, a reduced confidence with digital communication and information tools remains the main obstacle to the participation of the elderly in cultural life.

Yet the positive impact on the physical and mental health of those who attend museums is known, and in particular for the elderly. Various recent studies have in fact highlighted, if necessary, the beneficial effects of visiting museums. According to a study by the University College of London, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in December 2018, there is a 32% lower risk of developing depression among people who attend museums and a separate study found a similar correlation for the impact on the dementia rate.

The regenerating potential of museum spaces is therefore extremely topical and it must be exploited to encourage visits by the elderly, an opportunity for social involvement through free or paid activities for small groups, such as mornings reserved for the elderly or wellness activities such as meditation or yoga courses.

Cultural non-participation

Not only various age groups are ignored, but the potential catchment area is much larger considering the percentage of the population that continues to desert museums and archaeological sites. In fact, in Italy the percentage of cultural non-participation is extremely high. In 2017, only 32.5% of Italians have visited museums or exhibitions and 27% have visited an archaeological site or monument at least once. It is one of the European countries with the least cultural participation.

Despite the existence of factors that are beyond the control of the art and culture sector, bringing this audience closer to museums is not impossible. In Italy, the ability to collect data on visitors is still very lacking, but knowing them is the first fundamental step to define a strategy aimed at expanding your user base. The paucity of data collected by the sector is a factor preventing its development. Yet today these are technologies that are easily accessible both through websites and through the development of apps for museum visits. One way to go, especially for small museums, is to create synergies between institutions and share the data collected on a common platform to develop a targeted market strategy that can improve the cultural offer and attract a wider audience.

Engagement through social media

Not only young people can be the object of involvement on social media According to a study conducted by the Arts Council and Nesta in England, over 50% of cultural institutions consider the use of digital technologies useful to reach a wider audience, social media represent a key technology in this field with Facebook and Instagram the favorite channels (Digital Culture 2019, Nesta & Arts Council England). Among the most successful strategies to stimulate the public in this field is the sharing of videos or images and the publication of posts with informative content. The references to the local and territorial context assume greater relevance, enhancing the role of the museum in territorial identity and its cultural wealth (Musei e social media, Calveri e Sacco, Derevworld, 06/2019).

This trend is certainly reinforced by the Covid 19 crisis. In the absence of a material meeting In situ, the online meeting has grown, an encounter that, for 50% of museums, cannot be held due to the lack of a website or a suitable app. The online meeting and the offer of virtual tours or online itineraries can be one of the elements to break down social barriers by bringing those populations who, for economic, cultural, social or “awe” reasons do not cross the thresholds of the museums, art galleries or other heritage sites.

Loyalty

The relationship with the visitor that goes beyond the single visit can also be improved. The visitor increasingly demands a relationship with the museum that develops in three phases, before and during the visit, but also after it, with the request to deepen the knowledge and experience after the meeting on site. Visitor loyalty is an achievable goal by exploiting on the one hand digital technologies and data collected during his first visit and on the other by proposing content that is renewed and complementary activities. Sending newsletters and promoting events, thanks to a database collected from invitations to register on an app or to leave contacts on the website, are excellent ways to interact with the community and involve it.

Technologies of enriched experience and audience engagement

As we have seen, the use of digital technologies is essential to attract new visitors and retain those who have already crossed the threshold of the museums. Since the “first meeting” with the visitor now takes place in the virtual sphere through websites and apps, those who can strengthen and improve their offer in this field will have a comparative advantage. However, the level of interactive technologies adopted by Italian museums is definitely lacking. Less than half provide support for visits such as applications on smartphones, touch screens, multimedia content or augmented reality itineraries, while only 10% offer the possibility of a virtual visit. The online presence also leaves much to be desired with only 50% of museums having their own website and social media accounts. For small establishments the task of creating apps and websites may seem daunting, but in reality they already have many of the necessary skills: the knowledge of one’s own museum heritage together with  the passion for the subject matter and the desire to tell it in an interesting and personal way. These are the indispensable ingredients of “storytelling“, the means to engage visitors and make their visit an experience which they will talk about with friends and advertise on their own social networks. The platforms for the creation of apps that can also serve as a website are now accessible to everyone, created with management systems that allow even the novice to use them (user friendly) and thus allowing to overcome the technological obstacle and concentrate instead on creation of quality content.

In addition, the facilities to improve the visitor experience and give him access to their digital services must improve the offer of free Wi-Fi on site.

Online ticketing can also be used to promote the facilities. In fact, although the offer has tripled in the last three years (14% of the structures offered it in 2018), adopting it can be simple and push more people to visit museums by improving their online experience.

The international offer

Among the visitors of the Italian artistic and cultural heritage, the share of foreigners is consistent and constantly increasing: in 2018 they made up almost half of the total (46%), but compared to this number only 53% of museums propose solutions in English to visitors (cards, panels…) and only two-thirds are able to provide explanations in English (this figure then drops drastically for French, German and Spanish).

If the flow of tourism has been canceled due to the Coronavirus crisis, this is a temporary stop and it will be appropriate to prepare for their return, albeit gradually, with an improved offer in this sense. Making multilingual websites and digital guides available as seen above must be a priority. In fact, international competition for cultural tourism will be even stronger and Italy must fill a technological gap that today sees it well behind in this field compared to other European countries.

Crowdfunding

In a scenario in which public funding for Culture has undergone a strong contraction as a consequence of the international financial crisis of 2008, followed by the economic slump of 2013  and where 700 million euros are still missing from public spending in culture (in 2017 the public spending in the sector reached 5 billion and 849 million down from 6 billion and 550 million euros in 2008) and in anticipation of resources that risk being further reduced by the Covid 19 crisis, the museum and heritage sites sector must seek additional sources of financing and income. In fact, even expanding its catchment area, it remains a fact that the revenue from tickets sold generally represents only a marginal portion of the funds needed to preserve and enhance the assets.

If patronage with the institution of the Art Bonus has had positive effects, although above all for large works and museums, small museums must try to leverage tax advantages addressing the local community by focusing on micro-patronage and exploiting crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, which make it possible to launch campaigns to finance various initiatives in the field of culture and the preservation and enhancement of heritage. By addressing the community close to its museum, it also strengthens the identity by grouping the community around a common project and heritage. Even the creation of museum apps or web sites can be financed in this way, perhaps by offering free visits to the museum or participation in special evenings dedicated to donors.

If the outcome of the pandemic crisis is not yet clear, the key to overcome the emergency faster relies in the capacity of the single actors to attract the attention of the public by varying their offer and radiating their own influence in the surrounding community and beyond their own territory by seizing the opportunities offered by the digital world and social media.