It’s been nearly six months since Amazon launched Amazon
Explore – a platform of interactive, virtual tours and experiences led by
experts located around the globe.
With much of the world many months into lockdowns at that
point, it seemed Amazon was jumping in to fill a void created by COVID-19, an
opportunity already recognized by others such as Airbnb and Tripadvisor’s
Viator, which both launched
online experiences in April, as well as Klook
In fact, Amazon says the product was in development pre-pandemic,
and now it and other virtual experience providers say even as borders and
destinations reopen, this type of product is here to stay, both as a new medium
to experience the world and as a complement to in-person travel.
Amazon Explore now offers more than 250 experiences starting
at $10 from 20 geographic locations and in seven categories, ranging from culture
and landmarks to food and drink, wellness and beauty, nature and outdoors and – naturally – personal shopping. Partners include individual hosts
like Ken Sakata of Ken’s Tours Tokyo and larger suppliers like Intrepid Group’s
Intrepid Urban Adventures.
For now the experiences can only be streamed by customers in
the United States, with an Amazon spokesperson saying in an email that the
company will “explore expanding the service to other regions based on the
findings gathered during the initial launch period.”
Amazon would not share statistics on bookings but does indicate
the shopping opportunity is a key component of the strategy. When asked about
bookings, the spokesperson says, “Amazon is always innovating on behalf of customers and looking
for ways to enhance their shopping experience. Amazon Explore promotes
connections with new people and places, enables customers to shop for unique
products and teaches new perspectives and skills.”
When asked if Amazon will enable booking of in-person
experiences if some of its Explore hosts offer that format as travel resumes,
Amazon says, “Amazon Explore was intentionally created as a virtual service and
will continue to be a virtual service once travel reopens. ... Even as
travel reopens, virtual experiences serve as a resource for customers to trial
vacation spots and destinations.”
The strategy of maintaining
virtual experiences to complement in-person travel is top of mind for
Walks CEO Stephen Oddo.
Walks has offered various
forms of virtual experiences for about a decade, but the format became a
priority in March 2020 when the company’s largest market – Italy – effectively shut
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By April, Walks had launched more than two dozen “Tours from Home,” online replications of what had
been in-person walking tours, narrated by some of the company’s 800 guides and incorporating
videos, photos and stories.
In subsequent months, Walks added a “Spotlight
Series” - focused presentations on timely topics, such as a walking tour of
Wuhan, China, as it reopened and one last summer related to Black Lives Matter highlighting
street artists in New York – and a series of live online experiences with
guides in six cities, each doing a 15-minute tour and answering questions.
Oddo estimates they have
had about 10,000 customers book virtual experiences since the pandemic began, with
prices starting at $10 for an individual ticket up to about $1,000 for large
corporate clients such as Google and Cisco. He acknowledges the virtual tours
have not generated a lot of revenue, but they have provided income for some
guides and enabled Walks to both maintain connection with past customers and engage
a new audience.
In fact, according to a recent 2,500-person survey from the Tourism Marketing Agency, only 14.8% of all tour operators who tried virtual tours amid the pandemic say they generated "a lot" of revenue. Another 39.3% say that virtual tours did not generate venue, but did help raise awareness of their brand.
“If some percentage
come back and tour with us, those are customers we don’t have to pay Google for
or pay whomever for,” Oddo says.
“The fact I already
have a relationship with those customers, they had a good experience, that’s
what we are hoping is going to pay dividends in the future.”
If some percentage come back and tour with us, those are customers we don’t have to pay Google for or pay whomever for.
Stephen Oddo - Walks
And in that future,
with borders open and international travel climbing back to pre-pandemic levels,
Oddo says he sees opportunities to market virtual experiences to travelers both
during their pre-trip planning phase and also post-trip.
“Before you book, take an experience with us to get an idea
and then we convert the virtual [cost] into the booking so it becomes effectively
no cost,” Oddo says.
“And also many of the customers on our virtual tours were customers
that had taken those tours with those same guides in the past. They were loving
this reconnection. That shows you can continue to delight the same guests even
on later virtual experiences.”
Tiqets has taken a different approach with online experiences, but echoes the
belief that these options will exist even once the pandemic is no longer
Tiqets worked with some
of its venue partners to create one-time virtual experiences that brought
participants inside the museums and attractions, tied to specific themes such
as Halloween or Valentine’s Day.
The company says
more than 55 venues and 21,000 customers have participated in the events, which
have all been offered for free.
“We hosted these campaigns in an effort to connect our
venues who were shut at the time to consumers who were stuck at home and having
that itch each to travel and couldn’t actually leave their house ... inspiring
them for when they are able to travel again. Then from the B2B side with the
venues, making sure their brands were still relevant,” says Daniel Hackett,
Tiqets’ regional director for the Americas.
Rather than trying to replicate an in-person visit to these
museums and attractions, Hackett says the virtual experiences are focused on
providing unique, compelling content.
“Along the lines of what can you do on a virtual platform
that you can’t do in person, to create that enticing message for consumers to
join,” Hackett says.
“For example the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] in New York gave us a sneak peak into an exhibition that wasn’t open to the public.”
Hackett says he expects virtual experiences to remain an
option Tiqets offers to its venue partners, and the company is exploring how
to use things like Facebook Live and Instagram Live to market the events, but
it has no plans to turn them them into sources of revenue.
“We’re not trying to replace the in-destination,
person-to-person experience at all, and we are not looking to monetize them
either. This is a way for us to make sure consumers can engage with venues pre-travel
and potentially post-travel, but not a strict replacement."