Virtual tours become reality

Born of necessity as a way to keep clients engaged when the pandemic shut down travel, guided video tours are now a viable product for tour operators and advisors — and Amazon sees an opportunity.

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

In the first months after Covid-19 shut down global travel, every tourism-related entity, it seemed, threw out a digital lifeline.

From wildlife videos to virtual tours and cruises, inspirational films, mixology classes and cooking lessons, every day brought new online offerings from hotels, tour operators, cruise lines and destinations.

While many would like nothing more than to get back on the real road and leave Zoom and the digital world behind, the pandemic-fueled rise in virtual experiences last year opened new possibilities and opportunities.

And no opportunity escapes the notice of e-commerce giant Amazon. It quietly dipped its toes into the travel arena late last year with a new interactive product, Amazon Explore, offering a platform for tour operators and others to sell everything from private walking city tours to personalized, one-on-one meditation sessions, virtual shopping trips and museum tours.

Amazon, in written responses to questions about the new platform, said the move was actually planned prepandemic, “because Amazon recognized customers’ desire for unique experiences.”

“The service fills this need to quickly and conveniently connect with people, places and activities across the world that spark curiosity and capture the imagination,” the company said. “This need is not temporary, and it will not go away when the health crisis and social distancing guidelines subside.”

Still, the fortuitous timing of its launch has helped provide an income stream to local guides and other tourism-dependent businesses during the travel shutdown. It has also ramped up interest in (and competition from) travel companies looking to move beyond the standard video offerings that were commonplace in the early days of the pandemic and into longer-term, post-pandemic virtual travel and travel marketing initiatives.

While some in the industry speculate Amazon is testing the waters for a broader entrance into tourism, Amazon insists the new product “is not a segue for Amazon to get into travel.” The platform “was designed to complement, rather than replace, traditional travel,” the company said.

Douglas Quinby, co-founder of Arival, a research and conference group that includes a focus on the day tours space, said he sees the move by Amazon as an extension of its core online retail business.

“A big feature of many of the tour experiences is actually online shopping and connecting people with local merchants,” he said. “It really seems to be more about expanding their e-commerce footprint.”

Nonetheless, the move into the travel’s orbit by the Internet giant has the industry watching it closely, particularly after seeing Airbnb and Expedia adding real-world tours and experiences to their travel offerings in recent years.

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A lifeline for tour operators

Amazon began rolling out its program at the end of September with an invitation-only beta launch. While it has yet to make any big public launch announcements, it opened that platform to all U.S. customers at the end of 2020 and now offers more than 200 experiences from tour operators and other partners around the world.

The company said Amazon Explore was created to “virtually transport people to other parts of the world through exciting, vibrant and customized livestreaming experiences with local experts” while offering individuals and small businesses access “to millions of customers on Amazon while setting their own prices and hours.”

Tour operators that have been among the early partners say it has enabled them to keep guides employed and tourism-dependent businesses open, even if only part-time, during a year in which international tourism was largely shuttered.

Travel partners include well-known names like Intrepid as well as smaller, regionally focused companies like Ken’s Tours Kyoto and Asuaire, which specializes in travel to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, said he first got involved with Amazon Explore in 2019 and that learning the technology enabled him to stay in business during the pandemic while Japan remains closed to Americans, who had previously formed his primary market.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, leads a virtual tour.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, leads a virtual tour.

Ken Sakata, founder of Ken’s Tours Kyoto, leads a virtual tour.

To date, he has sold about 100 experiences, including tours of Kyoto’s historical district, geisha experiences, shopping tours and meditation sessions at a Zen Buddhist temple, although not all through the Amazon platform.

Intrepid Travel said its day tour brand, Intrepid Urban Adventures, has been able to keep about 70 guides working by offering the one-on-one experiences through Amazon.

Additionally, Cristina Calvo, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Asuaire, said the platform has also allowed her company to keep some local tourism-dependent businesses operating, at least part time.

“There are very good stories about products that we are currently selling, like a woodworking experience,” she said. “It’s a very small factory, and they were going to close down because 95% of their sales were done through hotels or craft shops that depend 100% on tourism. It was a great opportunity for us to actually showcase, through Amazon, how the factory works. They were able to keep the workers and also keep the store open to at least sell online. That was very powerful.”

Through Amazon Explore, Asuaire was able to help tourism-dependent businesses, like this small woodworking shop in Costa Rica, stay open for virtual tours and online shopping during the pandemic.

Through Amazon Explore, Asuaire was able to help tourism-dependent businesses, like this small woodworking shop in Costa Rica, stay open for virtual tours and online shopping during the pandemic.

Through Amazon Explore, Asuaire was able to help tourism-dependent businesses, like this small woodworking shop in Costa Rica, stay open for virtual tours and online shopping during the pandemic.

Asuaire also features meditation sessions and has recently added tours of a wildlife refuge center, which also relies heavily on visits and donations from tourists to fund operations. 

Calvo sees the income from the Amazon Explore platform as a complement, not a replacement, for travel.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to show what Costa Rica has to offer,” both to people who are considering a trip to the country and to people who can’t travel, she added. “It’s a more powerful way to connect than to put on videos and say, ‘Look at Costa Rica.’ That doesn’t have the same reach.”

Asuaire offers private virtual tours of the Natuwa wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica.

Asuaire offers private virtual tours of the Natuwa wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica.

Asuaire offers private virtual tours of the Natuwa wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica.

She also sees it as an affordable tool that travel advisors can use in the travel-planning process. Her prices on the platform generally range from about $30 to $80.

“So it’s not that expensive, but it’s also a one-on-one experience, so you are able to connect privately,” she said. 

“It’s a way to help [advisors] sell at the top of the funnel,” she said. “I think it helps engage future clients. For example, if they have people interested in Peru, it’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to experience a cooking class?’”

Or, she said, if agents have a client interested in wellness, they give them a related experience as a gift. “They can say, ‘use this code, and you can get a free meditation,’” she said. “So the potential is huge.”

Amazon Explore also enables travelers to make personal connections in a country before they arrive, Calvo said.

For instance, Calvo said she was planning a trip to Tokyo last year. She still plans to go, but now she can do a virtual Tokyo tour to start meeting people before she travels.

“I will go there. I will make it,” she said. “And then, all these friends that I might be connecting with, talking to, I would definitely love to meet outside the virtual space. So I think that just has great potential.”

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An evolving product

While many of the free virtual products that travel companies began offering during the pandemic were mostly videos developed to keep customers engaged while they couldn’t travel, an increasing number of companies have begun developing private interactive experiences that they can sell.

EF Go Ahead Tours, for instance, now offers more than 175 guided trips to all seven continents. And IC Bellagio is offering private virtual tours of Italy, including kid- focused experiences and language lessons.

Several day tour operators in the U.S. also launched successful virtual experiences during the pandemic, including walking tours, cooking lessons and even food tours that include deliveries from local restaurants. Still, Quinby notes that “successes have been the exception, not the rule.”

But Amazon’s entrance has increased interest among travel players to expand and compete in this space, said Richard Turen of Churchill & Turen Ltd. Industry Consulting Group. (Turen is also a senior contributing editor at Travel Weekly.)

“More than one supplier with consortium ties is looking to design virtual travel programs,” he said. “I have copies of several programs, and they are creative and truly personalized. The concept of sitting at home and meeting your future guide for a discussion of insider restaurants in the Trastevere section of Rome seems like an incredibly appealing way to connect, via Zoom, with dreams to be soon fulfilled.”

Turen said his consultancy is also working on developing virtual online travel gift stores.

“There are kids who would use it for school, folks who are physically unable to travel and travelers whose agents will want to get them excited and reward them for future travel.

“I have any number of clients who are on lockdown who would love to walk the quaint streets around the Marais district of Paris with a local resident via Zoom or tour some of the latest fashions in Saint-Germain-des-Pres from the comfort of their home.”

And he notes there is much potential to expand as technology advances.

“This is still a concept in its infancy. You can hear the sounds of a neighborhood while virtually walking through it, using existing technology. But what I want is for my clients to experience virtual smells as they pass the boulangerie before I actually send them physically to Paris.”

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