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Given social distancing guidelines and the need to reduce group sizes in addition to international, national, and local travel restrictions currently in place globally, many tour operators have been looking for alternative ways to leverage their skills and resources. Many people have switched to targeting local visitors(opens in a new tab), offering online virtual tours and experiences(opens in a new tab), as well as pivoting to renting out their equipment such as bikes, segways, kayaks, etc. Another area that’s becoming more and more popular with both operators and tourists is the use of self-guided tour apps.

These downloadable mobile applications allow tourists, and locals alike, to explore key information about a city (or location) without the need for a guide to be present. Evidently there are two key factors coming into play here. The most obvious one being the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second being the improved technology we have available at our fingertips. In addition to the increased mobile internet speeds and coverage (via 4G & 5G), many cities, such as New York and Barcelona(opens in a new tab), offer free WiFi city-wide allowing even international guests the opportunity to stay connected at all times. Combine this with mobile-accessible global navigation satellite systems (GPS, Galileo, BeiDou, etc.) and people have never been more connected whilst traveling. I’ll be looking at how you can utilize this connectivity to create immersive experiences that your guests will love.

Understanding The Technology

QR Codes

QR codes were invented in 1994 and reached a then-peak in popularity in 2011 with the rise of the smartphone before tailing off in subsequent years. However, 2020 has seen a resurgence in their use(opens in a new tab). Many restaurants, for example, have replaced their physical menus with PDF or online versions and direct diners to scan a QR code located either in their surroundings (eg. placemat) or shared with them by staff. This re-emergence suggests that people are familiar with the tech and, more importantly, are able to use it independently.

As a tour operator building a self-guided experience, QR codes can be placed in discrete locations, enabling your guests to scan them for information. This could be additional information on their immediate surroundings, ideas of what to do next, or if you’re including them as part of a treasure hunt, a clue about their next stop. If you’re offering rental equipment, it could be as simple as your guest scanning a QR code before they leave to access maps or local tips. As well as linking to text or to unlisted pages within your own site, you can also link directly to YouTube and other multimedia, allowing you to record your own tour videos or curate other sources. Websites such as QR Code Generator and QR CodeMonkey are free to use and offer unlimited scans as standard, but there are also paid options which include useful features such as analytics and dynamic codes. Ensure that any codes you locate in public places are legally placed and won’t be removed by local authorities. It’s also important to continually check that they haven’t been tampered with, or partially or fully covered.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality, commonly referred to as ‘AR’ really took off on mobile devices with the launch of Pokemon Go in 2016, an app phenomenon which to date has totalled over 1 billion downloads worldwide. In contrast to Virtual Reality (VR), AR superimposes information (sounds/images/text) over the real world around us using a combination of the device’s camera and GPS. Archaeo Now in Vienna has designed a treasure hunt tour based entirely around augmented reality. The platform allows them to display elements of the city as they once were, whilst combining additional information to create an immersive experience. AR also allows the tour operator to add links on screen which can lead to other external sources (similar to QR codes). This removes the need to physically stick codes around town and leads to a cleaner platform that will be more popular with guests, even without factoring in the novelty factor. This impressive use of AR on a tour of Velocity (Waterloo, Canada) demonstrates how it’s possible to create a virtual guide to show guests around.

Audio Tours

If AR seems too costly and you’re looking for a quicker option to take to market then audio tours may be the way to go. Audio tours used to require someone to hand out a bulky remote control complete with headphones on a cord, with visual cues dotted around to indicate when the user should press the button for the next piece of information. Smartphones enable a better user experience without a guide or official needing to be present. Using GPS (or alternative) technology, auditory commentary can be set to automatically play based on the visitor’s location. Combine your audio voiceover with an inbuilt map and on-screen prompts to give an accessible, inclusive experience.

How This Ties in With Your Existing Business

Self-Guided tours are not intended to replace conventional tours but rather offer an alternative or complement them. Because they can be done on their own or potentially with a friend or two all listening on their own individual devices it’s a great opportunity for people to get out in the city while still respecting social distancing measures.

When it comes to monetizing this offering, there are a few possible options. Just like a virtual tour, you could record your own self-guided walking tour and then sell it to customers through your website. In the same way that you share local secrets and insights on your conventional tours, use the same expertise in your audio tours. Take inspiration from the technology and innovations in tour offerings being developed and make your own version. Just like with a conventional tour, there is no one way and there is no right way, there’s just your way! Talk about the stories behind famous monuments or secret locations the same way that you normally would. That’s the appeal behind a self-guided tour, it’s like going on a walk with a knowledgeable friend, potentially with some interactivity. At a lower cost than a regular tour, it is a great way to promote travel in general (especially with locals looking for a fun activity), your brand, and even potentially entice return customers for your in-person tours.


A man walking down a street weating headphones


Commissioning a developer to custom build an AR or even audio tour app can be time-consuming and overly expensive. Thankfully, there are many platforms that do the hard work for you, allowing you to focus on building your own self-guided tour. Here’s a handful of them with various options and features:

My Tours(opens in a new tab)

Pocket Sights(opens in a new tab)

Stqry(opens in a new tab)

Voice Map(opens in a new tab)

Action Data Systems(opens in a new tab)

If you do have equipment such as bikes or segways and are pivoting to the rental market then integrating the use of digital guides using either AR or audio technology into the experience can add plenty of value. Just ensure you warn people not to use the app while cycling! And no matter how you go about this new offering be sure to put it front and center on your website, and if you’re looking to update your site, get in touch with us(opens in a new tab) today.

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