Right now, it might be hard to imagine a world after the pandemic, but what we do know is: this, too, shall pass. Cities will reawaken, flights will begin to hurtle around the world once more, and the tourism industry will pick again. In the meantime, members of the tourism industry need to work with what they’ve got: virtual tourism. And while the trend of offering experiences virtually may have been born of necessity, it’s now thriving thanks to its success.
Virtual tourism involves using technology to continue to offer access – albeit remotely – to entertainment, art, culture and travel. The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourism industry hard, but virtual tourism has provided an avenue for museums and attractions to sustain the connection with the public by meeting them exactly where they are: online.
There’s a simple way and a complex way to get into the nuance of virtual tourism. The simple way? Recorded site visits by tour companies or guides. Think virtual city tours and online exhibitions. Seeing as your potential customers are already predisposed to ideas like live-streaming and geotagging on social media, this is the easiest way to offer virtual tourism. The only real barriers to “entry” to your virtual tourism offering? Stable internet access, your venue’s online reach, and how well you’re able to capture your venue on a screen.
The more complex path to virtual tourism involves data science – mathematical modelling and location mapping to create a virtual travel experience that could have been ripped straight from a sci-fi novel. Imagine the highest-quality video game or film graphics you’ve ever seen, and then imagine that in 4D! If you’re going to offer this kind of virtual tourism to your visitors, you’ll need to spend a lot of effort on design and technology. And for your visitors to enjoy your product in their homes, they’ll probably need VR goggles.
The difference between virtual tourism in the form of a guided video tour, for example, and an immersive virtual reality experience is the interactivity. It’s pure transportation from one place to another: imagine standing in an empty Louvre, just inches from the Mona Lisa and being able to see the texture of every brushstroke in exquisite detail – while still in your bedroom.
Of course, this is a bold vision – one that requires an environment that right now is far beyond the reach of the average museum and the average virtual tourist. But virtual tourism also offers a host of less ambitious, but impressive opportunities, in the here and now.
For years now, elements of virtual tourism have been used as part of in-person visits to attractions to allow visitors to experience more than what is right in front of them. Museums have developed fit-for-purpose virtual experiences that can whisk visitors into new spaces through immersive exhibits. Amusement parks and 3D cinemas have used 3D goggles and effects, like vibrating seats or splashes of water, to transport visitors into other worlds. NASA’s been using virtual reality and augmented reality for decades with its space simulators, sparking a fascination with the stars in the young (and young-at-heart). All of this technology has helped to prepare the tourism industry for its greatest challenge yet: connecting with visitors without having them in the same room.
Gone are the days when the only ways to advertise your business were confined to newspaper pages and television ad-breaks. With competition in the tourism industry all the more acute due to the pandemic, venues are experimenting with form and style. This includes experimenting with virtual tourism, and the latest news in the world of virtual travel indicates that there are varied and budget-friendly ways to offer it.
A good example is Canada’s Wonderland, one of the best theme parks in Canada. Canada’s Wonderland was quick to get aboard the virtual tourism train when closures began to take place in Toronto. It began offering a range of virtual rollercoasters and rides from first-person view, available for free on its website, which was met with enthusiasm (and presumably some relief) by parents with restless children even beyond Canada.
Not only did Canada’s Wonderland roll out a staggering 34 of these virtual rides, but it focused on personalising the ambience for the public. What was already a promising concept was made all the more charming by the provision of handy guides on how to set up a realistic Canada Wonderland experience in one’s own home, accompanied photos of smiling families making manifest the entire experience alongside for Insta-spiration.
With attractions that rely strongly on visuals, such as rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds, virtual tourism is an obvious step, but what about tourism that excites the other senses? Say, perhaps, taste?
Devour Tours, a gastronomic tourism company which offers food and wine tours interwoven with storytelling and cultural experiences, seems to have crafted its own secret sauce to sustainable virtual tourism. Offering online cooking classes with its foodie (and even Cordon Bleu-trained) hosts, wine tastings, and virtual city tours, Devour has managed to add a pinch of zest to what might otherwise have been a company-killing situation.
From classes in concocting your own spiced holiday vermouth and team-building Spanish tapas challenges suitable for the workplace to cook-along classes in authentic Roman pasta and Basque pintxos, Devour has found a way to traverse the technological divide and reach people not only in their homes, but in their workplaces and social groups as well.
Virtual presentations have played a role in museums in many different forms over the years, but the state of the world today has accelerated and accentuated the offerings. The Met has digitised six of its most popular collections, established two different 3D virtual tours and provided home-based art lovers access to over 200,000 unique works in one of the world’s most famous museums.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has also jumped aboard the virtual bandwagon. They have collaborated with Google Arts & Culture to provide eight virtual tours throughout its 30,000 square-metre space.
The Acropolis in Athens is also offering a virtual tour of its own, proving that landmarks can get in on the virtual action too.
Plenty more museums and attractions have gone the virtual tour route. From offering visitors the chance to click through exhibitions to deep-diving into single artworks or artefacts, there are many ways to share your venue online.
It may not seem like it, considering the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances that have required tourist operators around the entire world to rethink their strategies, but there are upsides to exploring virtual tourism now so as to reap the benefits in a post-pandemic world.
Over the last decade, the rise of social media has seen travelers invest more in sharing whatever they experience online and spend more time watching other people’s experience online. In a way, this increased entanglement of technology, media and travel has primed audiences for virtual travel, making it easier for them to accept the virtual offerings of museums and attractions. It seems museums and attractions owe some gratitude to the hordes ‘Doing it for the ‘Gram’, after all.
So, thanks to social media’s influence – and little other choice – many restless travelers stranded at home are well-positioned to accept the rise of virtual travel.
In the future, long after travel restrictions have eased, it seems we can expect that virtual tourism will continue in some form or other. Rather than being the only option available to venues to reach international tourists, virtual tourism will likely become a supplement to the traditional forms of tourism.
It’s the museums and attractions that are proactive and that dedicate sufficient resources to offering some kind of virtual tourism that are more likely to integrate these features into a broader and ongoing range of offerings. The question is: Are you ready to incorporate virtual tourism into your venue?
Virtual tourism doesn’t need to be costly or complicated to be effective, but the key to success is understanding what you are best-positioned to offer. Here are a few handy tips to get the cogs turning on your plans.
1. Give the people what they want
Start with research. To understand how to keep your visitors committed to your museum or attraction, identify what it was that they liked the most about it.
Draw from your internal documents to see which of your exhibitions, rides or rooms usually attract the most tourists. Every venue has one star attraction, which is yours and why? Perhaps it’s the crazy rollercoaster with six consecutive loops? Or wine tasting in the cellar under the Louvre? Or the barnyard animal petting zoo?
Whatever it is, that’s what your visitors presumably miss the most as they wait for the storm to pass. Now it’s up to you to figure out how to give it to them – in digital form.
2. Adapt what you do best for the virtual medium
An ideal travel experience combines a blend of culture, history, art and education (to name a few) to create a multi-sensory experience. You can leverage any one of these elements to capture and project that same magic into a person’s own home.
Create snappy, entertaining content for social media or livestream a virtual tour of life behind the scenes of your successful attraction. Offer sneak peeks to potential visitors of what’s to come or figure out how to deliver your attractions interactively through your website. Develop educational content that is fun and kid-friendly to ignite the passion of the next generation for both learning and travel.
It’s also worth considering how to adapt one of your usual rides, attractions or events for screens. This can be a challenge,, but if you have a decent following online, outsource the innovation to your audience by polling the general public on what interactive or virtual reality exhibits they’d like to see from you. Of course, just make sure you’ve covered your bases to prevent malicious engagement – you certainly don’t want to replicate Mountain Dew’s disastrous ‘Do the Dew’ campaign.
It helps to be self-referential. Times aren’t normal, and you don’t have to maintain the façade that they are. Acknowledging the changed condition of your venue isn’t weakness, it’s relatable. So if your virtual city tour guides are rocking some fashionable masks during the shoot, zoom on in and ask them to give you a twirl. If your museum is taking great strides to preserve the art behind new layers of glass or minimise daily admission while remaining open on reduced hours, walk the audience through the preventative measures you’ve instituted for the public’s safety, or provide reflections on how you envisage the future of virtual reality in museums.
3. Draw from your communications strategy
Many organisations see communications planning as a lesser priority, to their own peril. To stay the course during the pandemic, it is essential to understand your audience and how to communicate with them in a way that sustains the relationship, even from afar.
To start planning your virtual travel offerings, take a critical look at your online presence. Assess how easy it is to access your website, or how much engagement you have on social media. Do you have a strong digital voice and brand?
Beef up your online engagement and make sure that when you do go virtual, you have an audience who actually hears about it. Then start rolling out teasers and trailers to tantalise your audience, priming them for the release of your first virtual city tour or the first virtual reality exhibit in your museum.
4. Think carefully before monetising your virtual offering
Times are tough, nobody is disputing that. Museums and attractions are doing everything they can to survive. But when it comes to virtual tourism, the golden rule is this: Be mindful of how much you ask for in return for what you give.
Businesses grasping to make short-term profit with inferior virtual tourism offerings are more likely to take themselves further from profit, rather than closer.
Though it’s early days yet, the virtual travel operators that show the greatest promise are the ones investing in ongoing relationships with the public in order to facilitate their return to their physical locations in the future. This means many are actively choosing not to monetise their virtual tourism in the short-term.
Remember: The same financial pressures faced by you as a business are also being faced by consumers, which means that people are hyper-vigilant to anything that carries even a whiff of a bad deal.
But for some museums and attractions, this delicate dance can be a tricky position. Creating and marketing virtual experiences can add up and for those looking at their balance sheets, anxieties are high with the knowledge that spending is expected to stay low into the short- and medium-term. But it’s important to remember that entering the virtual tourism space for the first time is held to the same expectations faced in the real world. So adding a high price tag to a product you haven’t quite worked out yet could easily backfire and negatively affect your brand.
Offering the same experience for free will have far fewer negative consequences. The reason for this is simple: Without brand recognition or reputation for quality, trying to bridge shortfalls today with high price-points on a modality that hasn’t been fully worked out could sour your brand image.
That’s not to say you can’t charge anyone for anything you do online – just look at Airbnb Experiences. But the key is to make sure that what people get is good value for money. With virtual tourism, you’re not just competing with others in your industry or your city – you’re competing with the entire internet. And there’s a lot of content on the internet. So if what you are offering can be found online for free, then you have to ensure that you’re offering a unique selling point.
This is what will make people feel happier to have spent the price of admission to access what your business is offering, over the cheaper or even free options they might be able to find elsewhere. That’s how you secure customer satisfaction… And that’s how you secure repeat customers or word-of-mouth and social media referrals.
5. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
All great innovations are born of experimentation, and so it’s important to remember that your first foray into virtual tourism may not go exactly as you hoped. If that happens, it’s okay – if ever there was a time to make peace with the uncomfortable, now is the time, since everyone is in the same boat.
The key is to be prepared to make mistakes, or even fail. And that’s okay! But an unexpected benefit of virtual tourism is that you can receive feedback on your campaigns, exhibits or activities in real time, which allows for gentle adjustment and correction as needed, rather than waiting for the end-of-quarter reports to monitor your progress.
Virtual tourism may seem daunting at first, but with a dash of practical optimism, it’s possible to see this new trend not as a needs-must flash in the pan, but an opportunity to help your venue grow and thrive in defiance of pandemic-instituted limitations. The key to success, beyond the tips and tricks provided here, is simply to understand what makes your offering special, and then make it accessible for people around the world who do – or will – realise that specialness as well.
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