London Temporary Exhibitions Report

Unpacking Exhibitions: Exploring the market for paid-for exhibitions at London’s cultural venues

Temporary exhibitions are a major feature of London’s cultural offer, and provide an ever-changing source of cultural sustenance for Londoners and a focus for visitors to the capital.

There are a wide range of temporary, paid-for exhibitions running in London at any time, with hugely varied subjects and curatorial approaches. While some will successfully attract large audiences throughout their run, some will struggle, seeing lower visitor numbers than they had hoped for in general, or great variation in visitor numbers at different points in their run. 

Why is this? What is it about an exhibition that makes it a success? Are there general lessons we can learn on the question? Although as a sector we may understand the audience profile for individual shows, we know surprisingly little about the whole audience for these sorts of exhibitions: which types of visitors attend which types of shows, and why.

If we can understand the entire actual and potential audience for London temporary exhibitions in depth, we can understand what different audience groups are looking for when they visit different types of shows. That will in turn allow us to understand the planning and marketing strategies different types of show can adopt to be successful.

Our recent report Unpacking Exhibitions answers these questions by looking at the entire market for London paid-for exhibitions.

  • Who are the people who make up the potential market for exhibitions, and where do they live? It’s not always in London…

  • What are the deep needs that all temporary exhibition visitors have, that successful shows appeal to?

  • How does a venue’s brand and brand strength determine the size of their potential market?

  • What different visitor types are there in the market, and how can we best encourage them to visit? What communication channels are best for reaching them?

  • How can we use breadth of appeal to usefully classify exhibitions, so that we can better understand their potential audience, and so understand how to best communicate with them to encourage them to visit?

  • How do pricing and other elements of added value work to attracto dissuade visitors?

  • How can we know whether, given ticket sales, the marketing spend for a show has been too much, too little, or just right, depending on venue type?

  • Why is it important to ensure that the proposition is an honest reflection of the visit experience?

  • What strategies can maximize awareness, and then conversion from awareness to action (i.e visiting an exhibition)? How can targeted marketing, monitoring of box office data and formative research help with this? How can we make sure that visitor numbers stay buoyant throughout a show’s run, avoiding the classic ‘soggy middle’ effect of less visits mid-run?

Typical exhibition lifecycle

Ideal exhibition lifecycle

  • What aspects of the exhibition can affect potential market size? Can the proposition be balanced to widen its appeal, can the concept be tested before launch, or can we extend visitors’ opportunities to visit?

  • How can word-of-mouth and appropriate pricing maximize take-up and revenue?

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Gerri was a founding Director of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre...

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