A special report by Hollis Thomases
Looking for an Amazon Explore review? Who better to give you the lowdown than 4 tour professionals who roadtested Amazon’s virtual experiences.
By now you may have heard a bit about Amazon Explore, Amazon’s foray into “virtual experiences.” The service, which is still listed on Amazon’s site as being in Beta, was officially launched in September 2020 after nearly two years of development.
Specifically, Amazon Explore virtual experiences are live streaming, interactive experiences between the guide and the guest booking the experience.
Since its launch, Amazon Explore hasn’t gotten as much media attention as maybe other online “Things to Do” providers like Airbnb Experiences or virtual gathering platforms like Zoom. Perhaps this has been intentional as Amazon works through Explore’s kinks and learns what buyers respond to.
Finding the Amazon Explore section within Amazon isn’t easy in the first place. It’s not listed in the primary navigation menu, in the main window when you pull up the Amazon website, nor in the dropdown next to the main search bar.
You really have to know that it exists to find it at all.
Once you arrive at the Amazon Explore section, Amazon showcases the Explore “products” without necessarily educating the visitor about how it all works.
The section does have a Learn About link that delves a bit into how Explore works, but it’s quite easy to overlook this link.
Prospective buyers therefore may be in the dark about what to expect and less interested in outlaying any money for a purchase – a flaw Amazon could improve upon. But once you go through an Amazon Explore experience, it’s clear that Amazon has put a lot of time into vetting and selecting highly-skilled, experienced guides and that together they’ve worked to develop as immerse and interactive experience as possible.
To give you an assessment of Amazon Explore from a professional’s point of view, Tourpreneur publisher Shane Whaley recruited two industry pros Tour Guide trainer Nikki Padilla Rivera of Trip Kinetics and Rob Pitingolo of Trip Hacks DC plus me, this article’s author, to go on Amazon Explore experiences – just as Shane himself did — so we could all give you our first-hand look at and critique of this new entrant in the Experiences sector.
What Amazon Explore Buyers Want to Know
Amazon’s index-like user interface has us all trained in “the Amazon Way”: navigate, drill down, and decide to buy an item or not.
The use and navigation of the Amazon Explore section feel pretty much the same as that process. If you’ve never done an Amazon Explore experience before – like the vast majority of people out there – you might want a little guidance at first.
Do you want to shop by type of experience?
Do you want to shop by region of the world?
Do you want to shop by price?
By time commitment?
But this is Amazon, so everything is DIY. Since it is all so new, chances are you’re going to “wander around” a bit and explore the offerings before finding something that holds your appeal.
This wandering around can be a little overwhelming so the main window of the Amazon Explore section is a good place to start your exploration. You can peruse Featured Experiences, narrow your focus by types of experience (for instance, Food & Cooking; Learning & Creativity; Personal Shopping; or Culture & Landmarks), dive into a region (six) or country (ever-expanding), check out the newest experiences, or meet a Featured Host.
Poke around at the experiences offered to get a sense of their depth by their descriptions. After you check out a few different experiences, if you haven’t asked yourself already, you’re going to wonder how this actually all really works. And that’s where Amazon could do a far better job preparing its buyers.
The Pre-Booking Experience – What did Activities pros think?
Going into the Amazon Explore experience, we tour pros had, at best, just a fair opinion of “virtual tours.” Those of us that had been on virtual tours before weren’t all that impressed; those of us who hadn’t were skeptical.
Of the virtual tours any of had been on previously, most were free or less than $20 per tour so that might have also contributed to the low expectation. None of us knew what to expect when it came to discovery, booking, and experiencing an Amazon Explore session.
Finding a tour to book was in Rob Pitingolo’s words, “as good as searching for anything on Amazon, which is to say, it was fine but not great.”
The Amazon Explore section was well-categorized and suggestive within the same category, but not for cross-category, so finding an appealing experience to book might require a lot of back-navigating.
Amazon Explore could benefit from the “Quick Look” e-commerce feature that a lot of other online retailer sites now offer.
Another of our pros felt there wasn’t a whole lot of supportive content about any of the tours and encountered a technical difficulty the first time she tried booking using her personal account that required her to resort to calling tech support. The upside is that her particular issue was resolved by customer service within minutes, which she found impressive.
Then came the selecting and booking process.
Our motivations for selecting the experiences we did echo those of ordinary travelers who choose certain travel destinations and book certain experiences: personal preferences, bucket list destinations, and price.
Interestingly, we were split on whether or not we chose our destination because it was one we’d want to visit or one we’d likely never visit. For instance, visiting the ancient city of Palmyra that exists in modern-day Syria, a place that’s unlikely to attract many in-person tourists right now because of the conflict in that country.
Our pros’ chosen tour experiences ranged vastly, from a wintry wonderland excursion in old Quebec City’s shopping district to a Costa Rican coffee farm tour, to tours of tea gardens in Taiwan and shopping for Japanese chef knives in Tokyo, to the site of the Berlin wall in Germany and a women’s indie clothing shop in Mississippi.
Though we were all aware that these Amazon Explore experiences would be live streaming, their main point of differentiation – that these experiences would be private, i.e. one-to-one between guide and guest – was not apparent to us all.
In fact, some of us didn’t even understand this until our tours with our Amazon guides were underway. Some of us also didn’t understand how this live streaming experience would exactly work — for those of us who chose the shopping tour, we had no notion how we’d actually buy something and how it would get to us.
Several of us felt that Amazon could assist buyers better with a demo video rather than rely on a carousel of self-advancing photo images, to explain how an Amazon Experience would work.
Pre-Booking, pros’ conclusion:
Amazon Explore needs work to better inform and guide the customer discovery process and lay the foundation for buyer expectations.
The Booking and Post-Booking Amazon Explore Experience
Once you find an experience that’s right for you, booking it is relatively simple. While on that experience “product page,” you simply select your desired date and time and click the Book Your Session button.
Do pay attention to the session duration detailed on this page, however, as your booking confirmation will not contain that information. If you’ll want to know it beforehand, you’ll have to go back into Amazon Explore to find the Product Page again.
The checkout process for your booking is standard Amazon: you’re taken to your Amazon shopping cart where you’ll indicate your payment method. The downside of this checkout process, however, is that if anyone gave you an electronic Amazon gift card that you already claimed and you want to redeem its value – or a portion of it — for this experience, as of this writing there’s no way to do so. Nor can you just directly buy this experience as a gift for someone else. That’s a bummer because these Amazon Explore experiences would make great gifts.
Once you do complete a booking, Amazon will automatically send you an order confirmation email. It has scant information on it, and Amazon will not send you a reminder of your upcoming session so pay attention once again!
Here’s some of the finer detail that you may not catch during your pre- or post-booking:
- Technology requirements. (Right now, Amazon Explore only works with a desktop or laptop experience; tablets and mobile devices do not work) Amazon also lists the following live streaming specifications, but so far further down the product page that they’re easy to miss:
- Experiences can be taken using up-to-date Chrome, Safari, Edge, or Firefox browsers.
- Only customers in the U.S. can take experiences at the moment.
- For better quality, we recommend a high-speed internet connection of at least 5 mbps. (Test yours by searching for the phrase ”test my speed” in any browser.)
- You’ll need a microphone and speakers to communicate with your host. (Most laptops have these built in.)
- Your work network or any virtual private network (VPN) might lead to connectivity issues. Please disable your VPN before connecting to your session.
- Session duration
- Session prep (particularly relevant if you’re doing a cooking lesson and want to cook along live with your guide)
- “1-Way Video / 2-Way Audio” – in other words, your guides can hear but not see you
- Session cancellation (you can cancel up to 24 hours prior with no penalty)
Booking/Post-Booking, pros’ conclusion:
While initially feeling like an Amazon shopping cart experience, the buyer may encounter unwelcome or unnecessary surprises that could still be improved upon.
The Amazon Explore Live Experience
When it’s time to join your Amazon Explore experience, you will need to first be logged into your Amazon account. But if that’s all you do, it may be a little difficult to find your way to the Amazon Explore session you booked. If you didn’t click on the “your session” link in your confirmation email, you will either need to navigate to the Amazon Explore section within the main Amazon website or go to your order history and click to your booking.
It would be nice if Amazon had a quick button within an email notification, as they do with delivery notification and tracking emails, to help facilitate this experience.
One of us actually experienced a guide no-show. Amazon had a timer clock counting down, and when it had gone on far enough into what should have been the start of the session with no guide logging in on the other side, Amazon immediately cancelled the session and refunded the full purchase price. That was certainly an impressive, instant remedying of what could be an unpleasant issue.
Though Amazon does provide technical requirements ahead of time, one thing it cannot prepare users or guides for is technical interruptions out of anyone’s control.
Weather played a factor in two of our pros’ sessions (snow in one; rain in another), but only one of those experiences had spotty connectivity issues.
And as might happen when you move while talking on a phone and lose your signal, sometimes guides would temporarily lose signal strength that could impact the perfection of the session connection. None of us, however, felt that these hiccups detracted all that much from the experience.
There was also the matter of Amazon’s proprietary equipment and technology that each guide used. This equipment directly connected to the guest’s computer screen experience, allowing the user to point with their mouse at what they wanted to see and the guide could tell what the guest was pointing at.
Guests could also take pictures of anything the camera’s eye saw – all that was necessary was to click on the camera icon at the bottom of the screen – several of us took advantage of this feature.
Amazon provides its guides with a camera that can be directed at the guide or at the environment around her. The guide shows you want she wants you to see, including “overlays,” a kind of slide image that the guide inserts into your view at a particular point in your tour.
To show you an 80-year-old historical photo of the same spot you’re looking at live on-screen; or a slide of color palettes from which to choose your preferences. These overlays, enabled by Amazon’s technology, added to the interactivity and uniqueness of the experience.
Speaking of interactivity, when it comes to the quality of any experience, virtual or in-person, the guide’s level of engagement with their guests truly distinguishes good from great.
All our pros had nothing but high praise for their guides, so Amazon must have vetted them wisely. It was obvious that these guides were seasoned professionals – people who made good eye contact and who worked to develop a rapport with their guests in a very short period of time.
My Canadian guide was excellent – it turned out that she’s a local historian, so she knew all kinds of answers to my questions. “The Taiwan guide was incredibly engaging,” added Nikki Padilla Rivera. “He also did a phenomenal job of understanding the medium and keeping us engaged with questions and giving us choices.”
Though some of us pros took shopping tours, none of us felt upsold to. In fact, even if you specifically booked a shopping tour, none of us felt pressure to buy anything. “I expected an upsell on the tea tour, but I had to ask the guide for his website so I could buy the tea he was raving about,” divulged Shane. And as Rob pointed out, “I did a tour of a coffee farm, so there was a pitch for the company’s coffee beans, but it was a soft sell.”
And just as all our tour guides started promptly when they were supposed to, most ended on time as well, with a few exceptions mainly encouraged by the guests. No one complained.
Live Experience, pros’ conclusion:
Amazon Explore guides are top-notch and made the experience one that met or exceeded expectations, particularly given the nature of the remote, virtual delivery.
Our Assessments and Advice for Amazon
There were a few shared comments from each of the pros’ experiences: Everyone appreciated the interactivity delivered from afar and the easy rapport the guides developed with guests. Shane “thoroughly enjoyed how interactive they were – a million times more enjoyable than a Zoom based ‘tour’.” More than one participant expressed a version of, “I enjoyed getting to hang out with a local.” We also valued the intimate one-on-one nature of the experience. Amazon could easily have made these group experiences to generate more revenue per, but that it chose not to was surprising and delightful. For those participants who took shopping tours, there was real value in the visceral experience of shopping locally, but from afar.
Though we all enjoyed our experiences, we had mixed feelings about recommending them to other people, mostly from those of us who paid top dollar. Those who paid more than $50 for the tour took some issue with that price point, whereas the tours that were under $30 got ringing recommendation endorsements. Amazon needs to figure out a happy zone that will still work economically for the guides delivering the experiences.
After your experience ends, Amazon serves a survey in which it asks guests things they may like to see as future features. For us, there were a few standouts:
- Offer two-way viewing for the camera – If we don’t want the guide to see us, that’s one thing; but not having the option to is kind of a bummer, especially since professional guides rely heavily on body language and facial expressions to know if their guests are enjoying their experience…and we want them to know!
- Make the experiences accessible on devices other than a desktop
- Enable the ability to tip the guide
And then there’s the observations and advice that Amazon didn’t think to solicit:
- Enable a way to gift a particular tour to someone.
- The ability to have a private tour delivered across several screens (so you could join a tour with a friend or family member who are based in a different geographical location)
- Because these are live experiences and currently only available to buyers in the U.S., there are time zone differences that can be a deterrent to booking. Said Rob, “I’m not going to stay up until the middle of the night to do a virtual tour of Australia. Nor do I really want it to be the middle of the night there when the time is good for me.”
Tourpreneur is the world’s only weekly independent podcast focused on activity and tour operators. Available on all good podcast apps. Subscribe here and never miss an episode of the show.
“The way that the travel industry is talking about [Amazon Explore], most people are talking about it negatively,” said Nikki. “But they shouldn’t be. It’s not sad. It’s interesting. Was this an inevitability? Yes, and Amazon started it before the pandemic. And if they hadn’t, someone probably would have during the pandemic.”
Amazon’s pre-sale process lacks strong education or encouragement to convert the buyer, too. There could be more tools, more upfront “how-it-works” orientation, more rich explanation of the post-booking and live experience process.
Amazon Explore might have potential value as a pre-trip planning tool, as Rob explained. “I see it as a good way to do some pre-trip research and ask a bunch of questions of a local, but since Amazon isn’t marketing Explore this way, I don’t think many people would even consider using it as such.”
Amazon Explore could also be a kind of sneak peek promotional marketplace for those guides it approves. “While Amazon is obviously taking a cut of the tours, these are smaller businesses running the tours, so your experience could be a sample of a tour operator to book with when you finally make a trip to that destination,” expressed Nikki.
Nikki also observed that, “The guides’ Number One complaint was that they had to become cameramen. Perhaps Amazon should think differently about who they’re recruiting as guides. Maybe they should recruit and train people who aren’t tour guides – in other words, find those truly comfortable with the medium and mold them into tour guides instead of trying to fit tour guides into the experience.”
The Bottom Line, pros’ conclusion:
Amazon Explore definitely upped the quality of a virtual experience with its technology, guide quality, and interesting offerings. That said, there are still plenty of improvements to be made and untapped opportunities to explore.
Will Amazon Explore survive long enough to make it out of beta, and will it be embraced by wannabe travelers as an alternative experience? Only time will tell.
Report by Hollis Thomases
With thanks to
Nikki Padilla Rivera – Trip Kinetics
Rob Pitingolo – Trip Hacks DC
Shane Whaley – Tourpreneur
Don’t miss the important news in the tours and activities industry! Each weekday I send out a curated quick to read email with all the major news in our industry. Sign up for your free Tourpreneur Daily Briefing.