Opinion – Guest Contributor Jessica Hammer, Taste of Toulouse.

Since the near-total shutdown of tourism and travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has – for many good reasons – been a rush to develop online tours and other virtual experiences as a way of replacing lost income or staying in front of our audiences while they obey stay-at-home orders.

There’s been a lot of talk in the tourism community about why you should develop virtual tours or experiences – but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. I want to give you another perspective – why you might NOT want to develop a virtual tour or experience. 

I’ve come up with a list of 7 questions that I asked myself as a business owner and tour operator to work through this issue, finally concluding that a virtual tour or experience probably isn’t in the best interest of my business at this moment.

As circumstances change, I’m going to keep asking myself these questions. If the answers change, my opinion on doing virtual experiences might, too.

Taste of Toulouse

Background:

I am the owner and sole operator of Taste of Toulouse, an English-speaking food tour company based in Toulouse, France.

I launched Taste of Toulouse in November 2018, so I’ve only been in business for about one and a half years. I don’t have any employees or contractors that I work with, so I wear ALL the hats (guiding, marketing, social media, business development, webmaster, etc.). Because I work out of my apartment, my overhead is relatively low – less than 300 € per month.

My largest fixed expense is for my accountant (as a limited liability company in France, I am legally required to have my books certified by an “expert comptable,” so I pay them monthly to handle the finances since accounting in France is not for the faint of heart).

Since the March 14 order from the French government closing all bars and restaurants, followed by the March 16 order confining us to our homes (we are only allowed to leave with a permission slip verifying that we are out for an approved reason), I have had to cancel and refund all tours through the end of May and have put all June ticket sales on hold until we know more about the situation.

Only a small number of guests opted to convert their reservation to a voucher due to the uncertainty of restrictions on international travel. Even though we’ll (hopefully) be out of strict confinement on May 11, the government still hasn’t announced when bars and restaurants will be able to reopen, which is when I can begin to give tours again.

So there’s a little bit about my specific circumstances to give you an idea of how things might look the same or different for you. Now, on to the questions that I’ve been wrestling with.

Jessica Hammer

7 Questions to Ask Yourself to Decide Whether or Not to Develop Online Tours or Experiences:

  1. What are you hoping to get out of this?
    Do you want/need to make money? Is it just for marketing? Is it to give your team (or yourself) something to do? Be sure you establish some measurable goals so that you can decide whether or not offering virtual tours or experiences is the best way to meet those goals.

    A free virtual tour could be a good marketing opportunity – but only if you have a good promotional plan to back it up. If you’re going to go for it, make sure it fits into your long-term plan. 
  2. Is your audience large enough that you can sell enough tours or experiences to make it worth the investment of time and money? So far, many of the tour operators that I’ve seen successfully selling online tours or experiences are established companies with large mailing lists or social media followings and a lot of previous customers that they can market these new products to. They’re not trying to attract new customers, simply marketing to their current customer base. As a much more recent addition to the field, I have to question whether I have a large enough customer base to make it viable. So decide where you fit on this continuum and if you have enough of an organic reach that you won’t have to pay to market your online tour/experience.
  3. Will you be selling something that others are offering for free? Along with the proliferation of paid online experiences has come an equally-large amount (maybe even more) of free online activities and experiences. Do you have a plan for how you are going to differentiate your products from all of the free products that are out there right now – especially when free is so much more sexy during these turbulent economic times. If the answer is yes, think about how you can “sweeten the pot” by throwing in a coupon for a future live tour or consider a free-paid model where you give something away for free and use that to promote a paid product. Which brings me to my next point…
  4. Is there something else you can sell besides a virtual tour or experience? Granted, they’re another big name in the industry, but Devour Tours is selling a pdf cookbook based on recipes from their food tours across Europe. My friend Caroline, of Lyon Wine Tastings, is working to develop an online course on wine tasting (p.s. She’s offering free virtual wine tastings as a freebie product to help her develop and  market this course). I see online courses as a different type of product than virtual tours or experiences, as the focus is education, not tourism. Think about how you might pivot to something complimentary that is outside the “tourism” box. I’ve seen several food tour companies offer “food tours in a box,” which – while it may include a virtual “tour” component – gives their customers a physical product to enjoy at home. I’m working to develop an e-commerce shop that will sell branded merchandise through a print-on-demand company, which requires almost no upfront costs and very little admin work once it is launched. 
  5. Will making sales right now disqualify you from government aid? This question might not apply to everyone, but if you qualify for government aid, verify the conditions of that aid. Here in France, independent businesses like mine are eligible for payments of up to 1,500 € per month for March, April, and  May if you can demonstrate a reduction of at least 50% in sales volume compared to the corresponding month last year (essentially, they will make up the difference in gross revenue up to 1,500 €). Since I had just started my business at the end of 2018, and winter is a low season for tourism in Toulouse, my sales didn’t start to pick up last year until June. For me, making a lot of sales of online tours in April and May might disqualify me from this aid, or at least reduce the amount euro-for-euro. So, should I really be trying hard to make money during months when I’m already guaranteed a minimum income or looking more towards the future, when the aid runs out? Which brings me to the next question…
  6. Is your time better spent doing something else that will help you in the long run? At the beginning of 2020, I organized a half-day planning retreat for myself and a couple other entrepreneurs that I meet with regularly. I came out of that retreat with an ambitious wish list of projects and improvements for my business. At the time, I didn’t really think I would be able to accomplish all of them before the tourist season. However, when the crisis hit and I was forced to press pause on my tours, I already had this list of things that I had identified as being priorities for my business: improving my SEO, writing more content for my blog, developing my email marketing plan to include drip campaigns for potential customers, making updates to my website, adding an e-commerce shop, working with a potential partner to develop French-speaking tours…In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think I would have the time to do all it (and, frankly, even with the confinement, I still don’t), but having these projects already mapped out has made me more hesitant to throw what little energy and focus I’m able to muster while we’re in confinement into something new without a clear picture of the long-term benefits.
  7. Will people buy your virtual products after stay-at-home orders have been lifted? I know many people have said that virtual tours and experiences are going to be around for a while – at least until a vaccine is developed and people can travel without fear. This is all hypothetical, so I want to offer a counterpoint. With everyone at home right now, we have a captive audience. However, once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, will people have time for so many virtual experiences when what they really want is to get back to their everyday lives? Will they want to be reminded that they still can’t travel long distances or will they seize what opportunity they can to spend time outside, within a reasonable drive time from their homes? I, for one, look forward to the opportunity to spend less time in front of my computer and more time outside with friends (even if we do still have to social distance). Unless you can create an online experience that seems so inline with your company’s mission that you can see it seamlessly integrated with your real tour offerings a year or two from now, you might be better off focusing on long-term projects that you know will pay off – SEO, working to adapt your tours to the local market that will bounce back more quickly, updating your website, working on your social media, just to name a few things.

When I answered these questions for my business, I decided that – for the moment and with the information that is currently available – I won’t be offering paid virtual tours or experiences. With the finite amount of time and energy that I have, I’ll be working on the following:

  • Writing content for my blog that I can optimize for SEO and share on social media. I’ve currently been publishing posts on how locals can shop remotely from their favorite local food businesses, reading lists of my favorite blogs and books on French food and culture to pass the time, and a recipe or two to help recreate the experience of visiting Toulouse in your own home.
  • Making updates to my website that will help me increase traffic and conversions. 
  • Building an e-commerce shop where I can sell branded, print-on-demand merchandise to customers all over the world without having to manage an inventory or handle fulfillment myself. Extra revenue from this will serve me long after we are able to travel again.
  • Taking online courses to improve my skills in SEO, content marketing, email marketing, copywriting and more (Skillshare has a free 2-month trial that is perfect for this time in confinement) and attending select webinars on industry topics that I have determined will be helpful to me.
  • Thinking through the challenges and logistics of adapting tours or adding new tours that will appeal to a local audience. If I am allowed to hold them, what might my tours look like in the 3rd and 4th quarters of this year, and then into 2021?
  • Developing my products for the B2B market. Honestly, this one is going to be tough for me, as most of the English-speaking businesses in Toulouse are focused on the airplane manufacturing industry (an area that is going to see some long-term hits as their main customers are airlines who are heavily impacted by the travel shutdown), but this is still a market that I have only started to tap that would be a perfect fit for my tours. I’m going to do what I can to make sure my offerings are ready when businesses want to start spending money on team activities again.
  • Social media – I’ve started hosting Instagram live conversations with some of the food producers that I normally work with on my tours. My goal is to serve them by helping increase their visibility, serve my followers by giving them a glimpse of what life is like during the lockdown in France, and continue to position my brand as a bridge between English-speakers that are hungry to learn about the food and culture of southwest France and the talented local food artisans and small businesses who give us a taste of place.

So, there you have it. I hope this helps you think critically about whether or not trying to sell virtual tours or experiences is right for you and your business. It might be – but don’t rush into it just because it seems like everyone else is and you don’t want to be left out. Think about where you want to be on the other side of this crisis and what strategies will best prepare you for that. What will make you most resilient and able to meet the new tourism landscape that we’ll see in 2021?

As we say in France – “Bon courage!”

Listen to Jessica Hammer on the Tourpreneur Podcast

Visit Taste of Toulouse.

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Shane Whaley is the Producer and Host of the Tourpreneur Podcast. He is also the curator in chief for the Tourpreneur Daily Brief. Shane has worked in the travel industry for almost twenty years.