Ashleigh discusses, from first-hand experience, how ‘family friendly’ and ‘baby friendly’ venues aren’t always the same thing.

February 28, 2020
Photo of the author - Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh Hibbins

I recently returned to work from maternity leave, and having a baby in tow has completely changed the way I experience and think about arts and culture. In our sector, we often talk about the importance of engaging family audiences – but how often do we acknowledge how broad the term ‘family’ really is, and drill down into the infinite diversity of family composition and life stages, each with their own distinct needs?

I’m lucky enough to live in an area where cultural experiences are easily accessible by walking and public transport, so I was able to visit a number of institutions with my baby on maternity leave, both in the UK and internationally.

What I discovered is that ‘family friendly’ and ‘baby friendly’ venues aren’t always the same thing – in fact, they are often the complete opposite. Many arts and culture organisations, even those that focus on families, offer surprisingly little of what adult visitors with babies need to have an enjoyable experience, or any experience at all. Most ‘family’ provision is created with toddlers or older children in mind – even the traditionally-neglected teen audience is often better catered for than babies.

In this 2-part series for The Learning Diaries, I’ll be exploring why your organisation should offer more for adult-and-baby groups, and how to do it.

This first instalment looks at why groups with babies could be the missing piece in your audience development strategy.

A missed opportunity…

The lack of provision for babies is a huge missed opportunity in the cultural sector, not to mention ethically questionable if we are really serious about making the arts accessible and welcoming to all. There are many short and long-term benefits for accommodating babies and young families, both for individual organisations and the wider industry.

To cultivate a loyal audience and repeat visits

Adult-and-baby groups are exceptionally loyal visitors if you can accommodate their needs. People with babies are usually less adventurous and spontaneous than other types of family visitors; they don’t want to take a chance visiting an unfamiliar place, especially if they have no way of finding out in advance that their needs will be accommodated. On the other hand, venues that clearly communicate they provide baby necessities such as pram access, (fit-for-purpose) changing facilities, and infant feeding areas can expect loyal repeat visitors. Adults with babies value having welcoming spaces they can depend on to offer a change of scenery, some stimulation for the little ones, and a place to relax and socialise.

To engage your local community

Young family audiences are often hyper-local, as many parents and carers look specifically for activities close to where they live to cut down on the hassle of travelling with a baby. So, if you’re looking to engage with the local communities around your venue, baby engagement is a key avenue to explore.

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To encourage word-of-mouth recommendations

As any marketing expert will tell you, endorsements from friends and family can supercharge your audience growth. If you treat them right, families with babies are very likely to recommend your organisation to others. I can attest to the power of local parent/carer WhatsApp and Facebook groups; these private conversations are a constant dialogue of requests and recommendations for things to do, places to visit, and products to use with little ones.

Adults with babies are far more likely to visit your institution if they have had a positive recommendation from their peers; and given how rare truly baby-friendly venues are, once they find one they are almost certain to tell others about it.

To expand your audience profile

Baby engagement can be a great audience development opportunity for venues that might not think of themselves as traditionally ‘family friendly’. My favourite places to visit with my baby are contemporary art galleries. These aren’t traditionally viewed as family venues because they don’t necessarily have provision for active toddlers and older children. But for adults with babies, the contemplative atmosphere, relative peace, and interesting art for little ones to look at can be a real oasis. These types of venues can be more appealing than more traditional family venues, which are likely to be geared towards older children and may be too noisy and overstimulating for young babies.

So even if your venue isn’t seen as kid friendly, you just might be ideal for adults with babies.

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To secure your organisation’s future

It’s a no-brainer that one of the best ways to ensure your organisation has loyal adult supporters and donors in the future is to start building strong relationships with children and young families today; and it’s never too early to start. Children who have grown up with positive experiences of arts, culture, and heritage from birth are more likely to value the sector as adults – and hopefully bring their future children in turn. This is certainly true of my family. Growing up in Canada, my parents used to take me to Fort York and the Royal Ontario Museum from a very young age. I’ve continued to pass on that lifelong love of heritage by taking my own baby to museums and galleries today.

By encouraging parents and carers to bring their babies into your venue now, you’re helping to ensure a perpetual life cycle of audience engagement and support long into the future.

I’m convinced – now what?

Is your organisation ready to accommodate more babies and their families? Stay tuned for our next instalment in this series all about how to get them through the doors, and keep them coming back. Coming soon!

Featured in the March 2020 edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.