BLOG 27th February 2024

Brave new world: A new audience emerging in Northern Ireland post-covid?

There is a brand-new cohort of attenders coming to arts and culture in Northern Ireland post-pandemic. That’s according to our latest report, published just last week.

Revenue and visitors are up 39% in 2023 versus 2019. People are coming in their droves – but who exactly makes up this new audience? Our latest Foundations report has found that 59% of people who attended participating venues or festivals in 2019 have not returned post Covid. However, visitors who have never attended before are making up almost a quarter of the rapidly growing NI audiences post-pandemic.

23% of total visitors in from 2021 onwards had never attended any of the participating organisations before Covid. Who are these new attenders? How are they behaving? And most importantly, how do we keep them when we get them? And where have the 59% who haven’t returned disappeared to? Are the newcomers filling the gap they’ve left behind? These are all big questions – ones we’re keen to investigate.

NI is not alone in welcoming an influx of first-time attenders post-Covid. At the end of January, Indigo (in association with Spektrix) hosted their Tomorrow’s Audience webinar. Their findings come from a mixture of ticketing data, surveys and focus groups. Their research shows these new attenders aren’t just in Northern Ireland – they're showing up all across the UK.

They found that 54% of audiences in 2023 were first-time attenders of the venue in question. This figure has returned to pre-Covid levels. Their findings mirrored ours in terms of increased revenue and visitors. They noted that this new wave of first-time bookers are more likely than before to return to the venue. Their report goes on to discuss barriers and motivations for attendance, as well as exploring paradoxes in the data.

An important caveat is that only 4% of participating organisations in the Indigo’s research are based in Northern Ireland. One thing we know from our work at thrive is that Northern Ireland is a unique cultural ecosystem- our audiences behave differently.

We've been collecting ticketing data from over 25 organisations all over Northern Ireland, including venues and festivals as part of Foundations since 2019. The results so far have given us a lot to ponder. How did the pandemic impact arts and culture engagement? Have we gone back to normal? What exactly was ‘normal’ in the first place? Our findings so far help us get closer to some answers, while raising a host of new questions.

From the data we have, we can see things like how far in advance people are booking, ticket yield, and a breakdown of audiences regionally versus in Belfast. This is useful for organisations as a starting point when thinking about audience development. Through building a picture of who your audience is and how they behave, you can make decisions about how best to plan and see where the gaps are. Who is missing from your audience and how can you reach them? Are people coming back to your organisation year on year (loyalty)? And how often in a year do they come (engagement)?

All that said, ticketing data is quantitative – though it can show us the ‘what’, it still leaves some burning questions about the ‘why’. It doesn’t explore things like barriers and motivations, or how audiences feel after attending, how they travelled to the venue, and whether they intend on coming back.

These limitations helped to inform our IMPACT survey, an NI wide survey that examines the impact of attending arts and culture on our audiences. When combined with what we have learned from Foundations, we’re hoping the IMPACT results will help us marry the ‘what’ with the ‘why’. We will be publishing our findings for IMPACT in the coming days – so stay very much tuned.

Eve Murtagh

Sector Programme Coordinator

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