COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way consumers spend their money. Over the last year, Americans have spent vast amounts stockpiling groceries, panic-buying cleaning supplies, and buying on impulse anything that might provide a degree of emotional comfort during these uncertain times

In contrast, what Americans haven’t been spending their money on lately, by and large, is experiences. In fact, few industries have suffered as badly since the start of the pandemic as the ones that comprise the so-called “Experience Economy.” 

Rooted in shared personal experiences rather than conventional goods and “things,” the Experience Economy is quite literally built around all that we’ve been forced to forgo since the beginning of 2020: concerts, movies, sporting events, vacations, gym memberships, and dining out at restaurants to name a few. 

What’s more, the vast majority of American consumers appear to have little intention of resuming experience-based purchases anytime soon, according to recent surveys conducted by CivicScience. When asked whether they plan to purchase an experience (e.g., a vacation or tickets to concerts or sporting events) within the next three months, roughly three out of four American adults (74%) say “no.” 

Of course, not everyone feels the same way. Since its rise to popularity after the Great Recession, the Experience Economy has been fueled largely by younger consumers. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that younger Americans and those living in relatively higher-income households (i.e., households earning more than $100K a year) are more likely, relative to those who are older and living in lower-income households, to say they plan to purchase an experience in the next 90 days.

Many Americans Plan to Wait to Be Vaccinated Before Returning to Experiences

It’s hard to know for sure when more Americans will feel comfortable resuming things like going to the movies, attending concerts, and taking vacations. Nonetheless, there’s reason to be optimistic that time could be sooner rather than later, especially now with vaccines being distributed and daily counts of new infections finally falling. 

In fact, the very latest CivicScience data suggest the speed of the Experience Economy’s recovery will depend greatly on how smoothly the national vaccine rollout continues. According to recent surveys, many Americans say they plan to wait until after they are inoculated against the coronavirus before getting back to the experiences they miss most

For more than half the industries included in our surveys — for example, the movie theater industry, the air travel industry, the sports industry, the concert industry, and the hotel industry — there’s roughly a two-to-one split between those who say they plan to wait to get vaccinated before resuming normal, pre-pandemic activities and those who say they are reluctant to wait.

For instance, 48% of those who describe themselves as movie-goers say they will very likely wait to return to the cinema until after they receive a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s more than twice the share of movie-goers who say they have no intention of waiting to be vaccinated before returning (22%). Meanwhile, 14% of those who regularly went to the movies prior to the pandemic have already resumed doing so.

Some Experience-Based Industries Will Have an Easier Time Luring Consumers Back

Although the Experience Economy as a whole will likely not get back to pre-COVID normalcy until a sizable share of the American population is vaccinated against the deadly virus, some industries are poised to have a relatively easier time than others luring consumers back. Indeed, Americans who frequent gyms, amusement parks, and cruises are eager to get back to normal with or without vaccines, our data show.

Among gym-users and amusement park attendees, the share of the population that intends to wait to get vaccinated before resuming normal activities outnumbers the share with no intention of waiting, but by slimmer margins than among the industries highlighted above.

For gym-goers and amusement park enthusiasts, a little less than one-third (28%) say they will likely return to these activities even without a COVID-19 vaccine. For gym-users in particular, this is only slightly less than the share who say they intend to wait to be vaccinated (36%). Moreover, a full quarter of those who say they frequented gyms before the pandemic have already returned.  

Still, gym-users are not the most eager to get back to normal. That title belongs to cruise-goers, which is fairly remarkable considering that in the early days of the pandemic cruises were major catalysts for spreading COVID-19. Among pre-pandemic cruise-goers, the share who say they have no intention of waiting to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before once again stepping onto a cruise ship (42%) is roughly equal to — if not slightly greater than — the share who say they intend to wait to get vaccinated (39%).

Will Americans Get Back to “Experiencing” Life by the End of the Summer?

There should be enough doses of vaccine available for every American adult by the end of May, according to the latest government timeline. Of course, it will take several months to inoculate everyone, so it’s unlikely every American adult who wants to receive a vaccine will be able to do so before the end of the summer. 

Still, for the industries whose consumers are hesitant to resume normal activities until vaccinated, such as the movie theater industry, the sports industry, and the air travel industry, this must come as welcome news regardless, as it signals a light at the end of what has proved to be an extraordinarily long, dark tunnel. 

Of course, we’ll keep a close watch on the forecasts reported here to see whether consumer interest in experience-based purchases picks up as summer approaches and temperatures warm. But at this point it seems reasonable to think most of us should be able to get back to “experiencing” life again — even if from behind the safety of a mask — come September or October.