Almost three quarters of people in the UK would feel uncomfortable returning to venues that do not socially distance attendees or require the wearing of masks, even if all patrons were Covid-tested on arrival, according to new research.

The Culture Restart Audience Tracker study by The Insights Alliance, which includes three cultural consulting companies working in partnership, found that almost half of respondents said that knowing that they will be seated at least one metre apart from other parties would be “essential” to attending live events, while 22 per cent felt uncomfortable with on-site testing at all.

The alliance, which includes Indigo, who led the After the Interval and Act 2 surveys, as well as Baker Richards, a provider of consulting services and software for the cultural sector, and digital analytics firm OneFurther, are running a nationwide audience sentiment tracker on a monthly cycle through until the spring.

The research will track how confident audiences are feeling about returning to live cultural performances and venues, and also how willing they are to access and pay for digital arts and culture.

In this first wave, it reports on fieldwork from cultural organisations including theatres, arts centres and touring companies across the UK during October 2020, and does not cover London and the West End. More than 70 per cent of respondents usually attend culture four or more times per year.

The research suggests the UK Government and industry will need to make a concerted effort to persuade audiences that “Operation Moonshot” – rapid, mass testing – is an adequate alternative to social distancing measures.

Katy Raines, co-founder and partner of Indigo, said: “It’s great news that overall, respondents remain confident about returning to live culture when it is safe to do so, and this is testament to the hard work of cultural organisations and their clear communications. The recent positive news surrounding vaccines is very welcome, though only 21 per cent said that a vaccine was essential to their return – where it is financially viable, loyal audiences are willing to
attend Covid secure venues ahead of a vaccine.

“Our data does not yet point to a return to normality as early as Easter 2021. The government has more work to do to persuade audiences that rapid testing is a viable alternative to social distancing and mask wearing, but over time vaccination may be a game changer. We will track these sentiments in future months.”

The research covers 104 cultural organisations, as 4,945 people responded to surveys issued by 24 collecting cultural organisations during October.

It highlights that net confidence attending live cultural experiences in person is up by almost 50 per cent, with significant age variation. The confidence score for people aged under 45 is up 56 per cent, however this drops to 36 per cent for over 65s.

When asked when they expect to start booking for events again, 45 per cent responded that they would start booking within six months, while 39 per cent were not sure, and 13 per cent said it would take more than six months. Only three per cent said they had no plans to book at all.

Twenty one per cent of respondents said they could not envisage attending until a vaccine or rapid test was readily available, which has increased from 14 per cent in the After the Interval: Act 2 survey undertaken in June-July.

Meanwhile, as venues remain closed and in-person live events continue to be non-existent, many people have been turning to digital methods. The research shows that 56 per cent of respondents said they had engaged with culture online since venues closed in March, with 41 per cent saying they were interested or very interested in engaging with digital content in the future.

More than half expect to pay less for digital than for a live event, though only 12 per cent expect digital culture to be free.

In addition, 61 per cent of those interested in engaging online said they were less likely to engage with digital culture once they can return to live. However, they would still consider watching events online that they otherwise would not have a chance to see.

Chris Unitt, founder of One Further, said: “This research points to an ongoing market for digital content, even after live events return. We are still at the beginning of a fundamental shift in which producers and venues can work together in new ways to generate audiences for digital content which are not constrained by geography.

“Digital production has the potential to be of particular importance to vulnerable audiences who remain reluctant to return to live for the foreseeable future.”

Image: David Joyce / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Edited for size