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Stephen Oddo launched the tour company Walks in 2010. As part of a pre-launch test, Oddo and his co-founder signed up for Second Life, an online virtual world, and digitally traveled to famous landmarks and monuments in Italy.
They stood in front of tourist destinations and gave tour guide spiels. Anyone who passed by virtually could hear them, and some stopped to listen for a bit. Though Walks would operate in the real world, a thought crossed the co-founders’ minds: We can run virtual tours.
A decade later, Walks is returning to the virtual world with Tours from Home, which includes places like the Sistine Chapel and the Roman Colosseum. This time, however, the virtual was forced. Like many businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry, Walks is turning to live video to remain open, stay connected with customers, and keep as many employees and contractors paid as possible.
People have more live video options than ever as they quarantine at home. The social video analytics team Tubular Labs released a 22-page report earlier this year that found the number of minutes spent watching livestreams increased 19 percent on YouTube and 16 percent on Twitch. A Facebook employee told Bloomberg that streams on Facebook Live increased by 50 percent from January to March.
The travel and hospitality industry has been slower to adopt live video than industries like tech or gaming. Travel is about being there, after all. Yet with all the health risks of in-person travel, businesses are bringing destinations to people’s homes. So many, in fact, that a website has sprung up just to catalogue all of the live streaming events in the world.
These virtual interactions have the potential to keep a brand image from fading, Anita Loomba, the director of marketing for the travel assistant app App in the Air, told me.
“Right now the strategy is to engage and retain them so when things start settling down, they’ll still remember them as the brand who cared to keep their attention,” Loomba said. “Travelers around the world are aching for that connection to experiences and people.”
The main requirements? Easy accessibility and opportunities for engagement.
For live video to succeed, it has to offer something consumers can’t get anywhere else. In the midst of a global pandemic, that means being interactive.
Video tours are “more like attending a seminar at a university where you hear someone speak and at the end there’s a Q&A,” Oddo said. This is in contrast to watching a documentary or travelogue, neither of which allow someone to ask questions on specific topics or zoom in on a detail that interests them.
The company The Tour Guy has also made the switch to virtual tours hosted by local guides. For co-owner Brandon Shaw, live video can replace many physical experiences better than a pre-recorded video or travel show.
“We have found that offering an interactive platform allows our customers to stay engaged throughout the entire experience,” Shaw said. “Live interaction with real exchanges creates a much more dynamic experience as opposed to a static one where you can only listen and not interact.”
Restaurants, bars, distilleries, breweries, and wineries can also offer interactive experience. Wheatley Vodka is hosting live tastings with founder Harlen Wheatley. And the owners of the bar Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, started streaming an early happy hour featuring cocktails lessons and chats with authors at 4:30 p.m. once since the city shut bars and restaurants in the spring.
Kendall-Jackson winery was another business early to adapt to live streaming. Before this year, it had never hosted a live stream. Now, however, it’s gotten comfortable producing live video tastings and wine and cooking classes.
“COVID-19 shut our face-to-face opportunities, so a rapid plan was put in place prioritizing the digital space,” the winery’s director of marketing, Maggie Curry, told me. “It was about shifting strategy, and making sure to have some live fun with it along the way. Wine has an interesting place within this heavy COVID-19 world to offer some me-time and in connecting with family and friends.”
The other, though admittedly more difficult, way for travel and hospitality companies to provide engaging content is to give a behind-the-scenes look.
When The Neon Museum in Las Vegas closed due to COVID-19, it ended the Lost Vegas: Tim Burton at The Neon Museum exhibit early. Digital media manager Amanda Riley and the museum’s education team responded by hosting its first live streamed tour. After the first week, there were 360,000 views. Prior to that, the museum’s most-watched video on Facebook Live topped out around 27,000 views.
Others have found success through access to bucket-list destinations. Singita, a hospitality brand with lodges across Africa, live streams safari drives through Singita Sabi Sand on Instagram with a photographer and guide. A representative from the company noted in an email that its Instagram engagement rate has gone up 400 percent since the live streams started.
Some of the most successful live videos are a mix of interaction and location-based access. Chiara Nicolanti used to run a popular Airbnb pasta making experience with her grandma near Rome. When Italy locked down, they transitioned to live streamed pasta making classes called Nonna Live that could transport people virtually to their Italian home. Bookings quickly filled up, and Nicolanti expanded the business to include private classes, as well as live videos hosted by other Italian grandmas and chefs. Airbnb now hosts its own suite of online experiences, but Nicolanti opted to offer a different pasta class on Airbnb and keep Nonna Live separate.
Travel “might not come back looking exactly like it was,” according to Oddo. “But there may be a lot more interest and engagement and value that people place on experiences because of this.”
With the mainstream availability of streaming, live video can become—a trip-planning tool, said Angela Durko, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s department of recreation, park and tourism services.
“Those companies and destinations offering live experiences during quarantine times are reaching new potential target markets,” Durko said. “People who may have not had the means (for many reasons) can now virtually visit the San Diego Zoo to watch penguins and koalas, can be whisked away to a very detailed tour of the Louvre, or learn to salsa dance with Puerto Rico’s most famous dancers, giving them a taste of the destination or attraction from home.”
Live video can also mitigate the fear of the unknown that keeps some people from traveling. Language, attire, and cultural norms feel less foreign if you’ve seen them on screen. And destinations that may have not been on people’s radar have more potential to stand out.
“Petra in Jordan may not be on everyone’s top 10 list,” Oddo said, “but if you see it virtually, you may say, ‘Heck, this is better than I thought,’ and prioritize it more than before.”
The key is to find the right platform that fits your needs—mass audiences on Facebook and Instagram or intimate tours on Zoom and Google Hangouts, for example.
“I feel that this situation has definitely opened the eyes of many of us who offer engaging, physical experiences,” Shaw added. “We are now realizing that this form of live video could be used as a stand-alone product for those with a permanent disability that prevents them from traveling.”
These lessons learned from live videos during the pandemic can be applied to the post-pandemic world as well. Hotels can offer live video happy hour check-ins for guests before they arrive, while restaurants and bars can expand their brands through virtual live cooking experiences and tastings.
“It was time people learned to get online and diversify their business,” Oddo said. “There will be a lot that struggle, but also a lot that come out more resilient.”
Photo Credit: Prostorina
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