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A World of Opportunities

Virtual tours rose from the ashes of the fire the pandemic ignited in the tourism industry. Tourism halted and, as we humans do, we adapted and improvised and online travel experiences were the result. Virtual tours certainly weren’t new, the pandemic solely accelerated their use and popularity as the majority of travellers were confined to their houses. Tour operators worldwide were facing an unprecedented problem with no one to take their tours. So what happened? Some pivoted to online virtual tours.

It wasn’t just tours that became virtual; online cruises popped up, mixology classes, cooking lessons, museum visits, the list goes on. These offerings threw the travel industry a lifeline: an opportunity to promote and sell tours once again.

Virtual tours and experiences have opened up a new world of opportunities and possibilities. They have offered those who are unable to travel the chance to experience foreign lands, dishes, cultures, animals, etc for themselves, without even having to leave their homes. This ties in nicely with the idea that virtual tours can continue post-pandemic as those who are restricted due to the cost of travel, because of physical limitations, or time can still enjoy experiences throughout the world as travel continues to pick up.

It all sounds well and good, but how can it benefit you as a tour operator to begin offering virtual tours, especially now that there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel? Where would you even begin(opens in a new tab) and would it be something you would consider offering when tourism returns to run at its previous capacity?

We spoke to Bonita Rhoads, founder and operator of Insight Cities(opens in a new tab), on how they manoeuvred from European city tours to offering live-stream virtual tours. They’ve noted some great success after they started from zero and have since been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. Bonita and Vadim (co-founder, fellow guide, and Bonita’s husband) offered live-stream tours through Prague’s ancient Jewish synagogues and cemetery for Wall Street Journal Plus members and it was a massive success that validated the concept.

Bonita has kindly shared some advice for those considering offering live-stream tours, in addition to exclusive insight into the highs and lows of a tour operator successfully running virtual tours.

Q: How have you enjoyed offering virtual tours so far?

Bonita (tour guide) holding the virtual tour phone in front of a Prague church

Bonita: I still feel pretty nervous when we are setting up live stream tours since they are quite new to us. We did a few of the first live stream tours over the past year for Wall Street Journal Plus members then launched our own slate of these tours before the winter holidays. It’s a big mess of wires and microphones and gimbals and prayers every time you start up. But the tours have gone very well, even with some occasional glitches (we turned an audience in Prague’s Jewish Quarter upside down for 30 seconds!).

Ultimately I feel the same buzz and satisfaction that you get from giving a good in-person tour that delivers a deep glimpse into a fascinating city like Prague. It even feels like a minor miracle to enable an audience on another continent (often in different places themselves) to experience a stroll over Prague’s Gothic Charles Bridge or to explore our medieval old town and art nouveau palaces.

We also live stream from Prague’s ancient Jewish synagogues and from the astonishing baroque Strahov Monastery Library by special arrangement. It can be quite touching to help Jewish congregations and organizations (as far as Oregon!), who cannot meet in person during the pandemic even in their own city, come together for a tour 6000 miles away in the 800-year-old Old-New Synagogue and in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. We did one live-stream tour from the Jewish Quarter as a gift to a woman who is ill and several other tours as Hanukkah celebrations for families who couldn’t gather during the pandemic. Our city tours have been birthday gifts a few times already!

The short answer is: I start every tour scared and end up feeling great by the end.

Q: How difficult was it to set them up? Logistics, equipment, even marketing them?

Vadim (tour guide) holding the phone and presenting their virtual tour in front of a famous Prague monument

Bonita: Our tours owe a lot to my husband, co-founder, and fellow guide, Vadim Erent, and his patient camera skills. You need to be pretty balanced with the gimbal ( a pivoted support that permits rotation of the camera) and phone camera so as not to make spectators ill with jerky movements. Vadim is great at panning (side-to-side movements) and zooming in and out. He also figured out how we could add historic photos and paintings to the screen along the tours, which add a powerful dimension.

But the technical end has also been demanding (many issues to figure out and learn) and, I should mention, expensive. We needed to decide what microphones and transmitters to buy, the right wireless earpieces, phones with very high-quality cameras. There has been a lot of trial and error and experimentation in how to deliver the tour. We ended up using Zoom as our platform but also keep exploring if an alternative exists that might serve better.

I should note here that when people talk about virtual touring, they often really mean giving a presentation in a single space using film clips and images, whereas we truly live stream a tour in real-time through our city, which is more demanding physically and technically. Vadim is our cameraman and his arm is usually pretty tired by the end of a 75-minute tour!

You also need to do some thinking about how you want to use Zoom, if you go with them, as we have. For a while, if I had groups with over 15 devices joining, I would use “Webinars” instead of “Meetings.” Webinars generally limit spectator involvement to the chat function and don’t include them using mics or having their own screens come up. I worried that larger groups would mean too many people engaging with us on their mics since we take Q & A all along the way. I was concerned that the larger the group, the greater risk that a participant would leave their mic on and not understand the protocol of turning it off when not speaking, which can create unpleasant background noise for your whole tour!

But I’ve found out that groups enjoy seeing each other so much, it’s worth it to hold a “Meeting” that allows mics and screens even with 100 participants. It’s part of the point of the group buying your tour. They want to see the experience but also see each other! So that’s a bit of a revelation, that this kind of medium does not just make a travel experience possible for people from different places, but also enables people to see and connect with others that they are separated from.

It’s good to recognize that your tour very often involves a social dimension for the group beyond your tour!

Q: Would virtual tours be something you would look to continue post-pandemic?

A stunning Prague street with small, green gardens with a beautiful building in the distance overlooking it all

Bonita: We definitely plan to keep developing this kind of touring. It is very special to make a travel experience possible for those who are barred by issues of health, mobility, financial, and time limitations, let alone a global crisis like Covid-19. I’ve already mentioned the way live stream tours enable a group to connect for a shared experience even from different places and time zones.

Of course, we’ve been grateful to make some income again after the pandemic body-slammed our regular tours (as it did to most of our fellow tour operators and fellow guides)!

Q: Any advice for those looking to start virtual tours? Are they here to stay?

Bonita and Vadmin (owners and guided for Insight Cities) posing for a photo in Prague

Bonita: You probably need to decide if your tours and expertise convert well to virtual or live stream experiences. We’re a bit blessed to offer tours of a stunning and compact old city like Prague. You can count on something fascinating and historic about every 20 feet! You can’t even cover all the interesting things that you pass by. I’d have no idea how to make this work in a city with sites more spread out.

On the other hand, if you can make a 45-minute experience at a single site, that might work quite well. We think these experiences are here to stay and will continue to evolve. Obviously, you also need to think about the time difference between you and your target audiences. We’ve been giving illuminated night tours of Old Town Prague for west coast Americans this winter. But we can’t offer folks in PST (9 hours behind us) many of our other tours that rely on daylight until it’s spring and summer and we have longer days. If you do decide to develop live stream touring, you will have one fussy issue after issue to figure out and probably a lot of trial and error with the tech, but it may really be worth it for you.

If virtual tours are something that you would be interested in, here’s our takeaway checklist and some food for thought:

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