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October 5, 2022

What Just Happened?

An Industry-wide Audience Analysis of the Performance of AZA Organizations

average monthly attendance at aza organizations

By: Zachary Winfield

“There are centuries in which nothing happens and years in which centuries pass.” The last few years feel a lot more like the second half of that famous proverb than the first. As AZA member organizations continue to navigate the post-pandemic world, in this article (the first of two we’ll post on the topic) we’re sharing part of a recent industry-wide analysis that evaluates what the last few years have meant for members of our community.

This analysis was completed based on data from Canopy Strategic Partners’ Audience Analytics platform, which tracks tens of millions of mobile devices all around the United States. This platform allows us to capture information about who visits facilities and when; for how long; where constituents live, work, shop, and spend time; how they identify ethnically/racially; how much they earn; the makeup of their households; and much more. The following analyses are based on data captured through this platform about the performance of 206 discrete AZA organizations based in the United States.

Here in Part I, we’ll answer three key questions:

  1. How were AZA organizations trending before the pandemic?
  2. How many visitors were actually lost to the pandemic?
  3. How have these same organizations recovered from the pandemic?

How were AZA organizations trending before the pandemic?

This is the prelude of our story—the trajectory of our sample of 206 AZA member organizations before the pandemic hit. In the chart below, the blue line represents the monthly average of aquarium attendance in our sample, while the green line shows the same for zoos, for each month from January 2017 through December 2019.

A few observations. First, by month, average attendance to aquariums was higher than it was at zoos. This does not mean that more people visit zoos than aquariums (the opposite is true), but rather that on average, a generic AZA-accredited aquarium hosts more visitors than the equivalent zoo. Another way to look at it is that there are far more small zoos than there are small aquariums in our sample. Second, in terms of monthly average, aquarium attendance was trending slightly upward, while zoo attendance was trending slightly downward. Lastly, we observe a very predictable pattern developing, with attendance spikes in the spring and summer, and small bumps around the holidays. These are the attendance patterns we have all come to know and love (or at least tolerate).

How many visitors were actually lost to the pandemic?

We all remember what happened in 2020, but for the sake of the story, the chart below illustrates just how massive the decline in attendance to AZA organizations was, especially during spring of that year.

The plunge, when visualized, is dramatic to the point of being jarring. What in a previous year would have been the beginning of another strong spring for the profession was instead a complete annihilation. But just how many visitors were lost? How many visitors didn’t we host in 2020? Brace yourself…

We assess that in 2020 alone, this community lost 93 million total visitors. For context, in 2019 about 165 million guests patronized the organizations in our sample, meaning that the total loss was about 56%. That’s 93 million visitors worth of field trips, education programs, opportunities to connect with wildlife, to spend quality time with family, not to mention a boatload of revenue, disappeared in over just 12 months.

How have these same organizations recovered from the pandemic?

As we know now, not all was lost. In the months and years since spring 2020, this profession has shown remarkable resilience. But how exactly did it look? The chart below illustrates the recovery timeline (in green) for zoos and aquariums as compared to their 2017-2019 averages (in blue).

If you look closely, you can almost pinpoint the exact moment in both cases when visitors came back, when they either felt safe again or maybe just decided that they’d had enough of quarantine. For zoos, it was in July of 2021, and for aquariums, it was interestingly a few months earlier in May. We also observe that the blue and green lines essentially converge by the second half of 2021, meaning that by summer of that year, our industry had returned to those familiar old attendance patterns.

All in all, not too shabby a recovery. But so far, everything we’ve looked at has been almost entirely in aggregate, and we know from our work with many organizations around the profession that the recovery wasn’t so neatly distributed. This is an industry that resists aggregation at every turn!

We hope you’ll join us at our upcoming webinar on Thursday, October 13 at 12PM EDT to learn the exciting conclusion of our story, where we’ll share data about how various segments and subsegments of AZA membership recovered and when; how geography, demographics, and population health impacted (or did not impact) recovery; and what’s been happening in the last few months as the profession continues on the road back. If you can’t make it, check back for Part II of this series, which we’ll post during the week of the 17th.

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