First tour since lockdown

Robert Levitt of Via Nissa Excursions joins the Tourpreneur Podcast and walks us through giving his first tour since lockdown.

I’m really excited to share Robert’s story because he posted photos of his tour on our Facebook. Robert’s photos attracted hundreds of likes and the group was buzzing with excitement because this was the first sign we had seen of a real tour as opposed to a virtual tour.

Robert Levitt of Via Nissa

On the podcast, Robert shares with us how they adapted the business and tours to comply with the strict French regulations. He also shares how they marketed their tours to locals and discusses the different challenges when giving tours to locals rather than tourists.

So we decided we were going to do a tour and we were going to do it socially distancing with everyone wearing masks.

Everyone had to provide to us in advance, a document, which proved that they lived within a hundred kilometers of Nice.

We brought with us hand sanitizers. We had to restrict the number of participants in the group because there was no congregation of more than 10 people. .

“We didn’t want to provide our normal system of communication because then we had all kinds of issues about disinfecting it in the proper way, or whatever that would be. So we asked all the participants to download an application. In this case, it was the Uniti app. So guests could bring their own phone, their own earphones, so they can listen to the presentation.

Robert Levitt, Via Nissa

We include a transcript of the interview below.

Who are Via Nissa Excursions?

Via Nissa shows you the « authentic » Nice, Provence and Italian Riviera by integrating you, the independent traveller, into the lives of local people. ‘As we are not a professional tour guide or travel agent, we don’t take you to museums or major tourist attractions. Our excursions are with practicing historians, art historians, archivists with Master & PhD degrees – those who are not only recognized leaders in their fields but understand how to transmit their knowledge to you.’

More about Robert Levitt

When Robert moved part-time to the South of France in 2008, his interests in understanding the underlying culture led him to begin the study of the local language, Provençal.

It was rare for a foreigner to begin the study of Provençal, but Robert felt it was necessary to develop a rapport with the individuals who were born in the region. This led him to the entering a French university, the université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis where he earned an undergraduate degree in Material and Immaterial Patrimony, which essentially meant the study of history, art history, architecture, literature, local languages, music and the ethnography of the region between Genova and Aix-en-Provence.

Upon graduation, he continued his studies by obtaining a 2-year master degree in medieval history, literature and architecture at the université de Lumière Lyon2 where he wrote his thesis on a Provençal individual from the fourteenth century who became a famous military captain in Italy. Robert continues to devote a large portion of his time to his own active historical research and has continued his studies “Canon Law” at the Katholic University in Leuven, Belgium as well as working on his doctorat at the Université Lumière Lyon2 on the “Geopolitics during the period of the Avignon Popes.”

Robert is responsible for the client experience as well as assessing the opportunities to be presented. Robert performs the historical research on certain studies that Via Nissa performs.

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Full transcript of our interview with Robert Levitt, Via Nissa.

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Tourpreneur podcast, travel industry veteran, Shane Whaley will take you on a journey with fellow Tourpreneurs, sharing their tips, ideas, insights and success stories to inspire you, to make your tour business the best it can be. And now here is your host, Shane Whaley.

Shane Whaley:

And welcome to episode 92 of the Tourpreneur podcast, Robert Levitt in the south of France. How are you?

Robert Levitt:

Good morning, Shane, how are you?

Shane Whaley:

I’m really excited to share your story because you posted on our Facebook group. I woke up over the weekend to a flurry of likes and excitement and positivity, because you had posted about a tour that you had lead, either that day or the previous day in Nice, France.

Shane Whaley:

But before we get into that, because I really want to share how you’ve adapted to the conditions there in France. Take us back to the start of the lockdown and when COVID hit. How did that look for you?

Robert Levitt:

For us, I was in Geneva trying to organize some Jewish heritage tours in the North of Italy, when we… Well, when I became aware of what was going on. So up until that point, which was mid February, I thought COVID was just something that occurred in China. And being in Italy still, I was sensitized to the issue and we had the big issues around the arrival conference in Berlin, which I had planned to go to. And then the discussion about whether it was canceled. It was canceled, but I decided to go anyway. I had already bought the plane ticket and I had the hotel. And I had several other meetings in Berlin. But one was really important to us, because it was a specialized tour agency focused on European Jewish heritage. And this relationship was real important, because they were sending us more and more and more very high end clients.

Robert Levitt:

And not only were all the meetings in Berlin eventually canceled, but a week later we got an email from this agency, that said that they were shutting their business after 20 years. So for us, it was back to the starting gates. Because we’ve only been around since 2018, and we worked really hard to build up some of these relationships. And now all of a sudden they were ended and then we found ourselves in a lockdown.

Robert Levitt:

So we were in full confinement here in France for almost two months, where we were limited to leaving our house just a half a kilometer from where we lived. That was all we could… We could go, and we had to bring with us a form that was specifying, why we were leaving the house, et cetera, et cetera. So it was not a very optimistic situation when we started.

Shane Whaley:

And the company that went under, the one that been around for two decades was that COVID related or…

Robert Levitt:

Well, I believe what they had done is they had taken a lot of deposits and things like this. They worked a lot with the cruise ships, and they were going to be forced to refund everything. And I don’t know if they could afford to do that. Maintain their staff, et cetera, et cetera. So they shut down completely.

Shane Whaley:

Wow. I mean, it’s just staggering to me that so early on during the… Because I was the same as you. I hate myself for this Robert, but when all the news came in with COVID, I thought, well, this is really sad, but it’s happening over there. As they say in German, [foreign language 00:00:03:18]. It’s not happening here.

Shane Whaley:

And then now you look around with everybody in masks and I can’t get my hair cut right now. And that was something you’d said to me, that you were surprised by the reaction of your Facebook posts on the weekend. And I said, “Yeah, because here we’re still in lock…” Where we’re starting to come out of lockdown, there’s… You can eat outdoors, but there’s a load of restrictions that come with that, that just make it very unwieldy for a business. So for us to see you leading a tour, is hugely exciting. It’s the first chink of light that we’ve seen. Can you talk to us about how you adapted to the rules that were placed on you in France?

Robert Levitt:

Well, we have a… There were a number of rules on us and we knew we wanted to go out and do something, because we knew there was an interest of people to explore, because they couldn’t go anywhere. There’s a restriction in France that you could only go a hundred kilometers from your house.

Robert Levitt:

So we decided we were going to do a tour and we were going to do it socially distancing. So we were going to maintain a distance between the individuals. We were going to require everyone to wear face masks. Everyone had to provide to us in advance, a document, which proved that they lived within a hundred kilometers of Nice. We brought with us hand sanitizers. We had to restrict the number of participants in the group because there was no congregation of more than 10 people. So that included, for us, the translator and the interpreter. And then of course put a face mask on a speaker and nobody can hear them, right? And so… And then of course, put the distance, spread out, also an issue. So we needed some kind of system.

Speaker 1:

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Robert Levitt:

So everyone had to prove that they live within a hundred kilometers. And this… We were concerned because it was the first visit that was being done. We were a group, we were going to be obviously very visible to the police. And we were concerned that we would be controlled, we would be checked on. To see what we were doing and why we were doing it. So if we didn’t have these documents, if we relied on the participants to bring them with them, we would have no assurance that they would have done the right thing. And that probably would have ended up with us being fined. And so we had everyone deliver them to us by email in advance. So the documents to prove where they lived was with us. When we had it…

Robert Levitt:

One time, we had our guide who was… Going to distribute some documents. So he made sure he used the hand sanitizer, before he touched the documents and provided them to all the individuals. We were limited by the number of participants, because in France, the current regulation said, you can only have congregations of up to 10 people. And that would include, in our case, both the guide and an interpreter.

Robert Levitt:

And then of course, if you, if you’re wearing a mask, how does anybody hear you? It’s very difficult. So you have people covering their face. At the same time, keeping a distance. So we had to have a system of communication. So we didn’t want to provide our normal system of communication because then we had all kinds of issues about disinfecting it in the proper way, or whatever that would be. So we asked all the participants to download an application. In this case, it was the Unity application. So they could bring their own phone, their own earphones, so they can listen to the presentation. And in this way, everybody was sort of safe in a sanitary way.

Shane Whaley:

Yeah, no, it’s a really good idea. So they get the Unity app, you tell them to download it, they have it on their phone, they’re using their equipment and they’re just listening to the guide through that app.

Robert Levitt:

That’s right. And because we are doing it in multiple languages, they can listen in either French or English.

Shane Whaley:

Oh, that’s cool. Wow. What’s the costs for you, for utilizing that app?

Robert Levitt:

Well, at this point, we’re still sort of in the test process. So there has not been any costs to us. But it’s not perfect. Look, it’s not perfect because there are certain areas… We’re walking through the old city and there’s certain areas where the network is just not good. And of course it’s depending on the network. And the other thing about this app, is people that are living in the area, they’re going to have a local telephone. So they’re going to have 4G access. But if you are coming from Australia or from America or someplace else, you probably don’t have a telephone with access to the network. So therefore it may not work very well for a foreign visitor.

Shane Whaley:

But you are targeting, obviously, because of the hundred kilometer radius, you’re targeting locals. How did you go about promoting your tours to locals in the area?

Robert Levitt:

Well there’s a couple of things about designing local tours, because they’re not the same as if you were dealing with a foreigner who doesn’t have the knowledge. I mean, it’s almost like if you have a restaurant here in the countryside of France, it’s designed for the locals. And if it’s no good, the locals aren’t going to come.

Robert Levitt:

So we also have to design, in a local tour, something that’s going to be far, far deeper into the culture and the history of Nice, which in our case plays to our strengths. Because our organization is made up of historians, archivists, and linguists. So we are able to do that. But if the presentation would not have been good enough, if we would have made mistakes, if there were questions that we didn’t answer, our credibility can very quickly be hurt.

Robert Levitt:

So we’re targeting people who have lived here. And that have lived here, some of them that were on our tour more than 10 years, maybe more than 20 years. And we had to be able to find a whole sort of a new series of visions and ideas, kind of the Nice you never knew. And this was kind of a challenge because if we couldn’t attract their attention very quickly, we would not be doing any more tours in the future.

Robert Levitt:

So the other thing that was very important for us is that it was a bilingual tour. If you do it… If we did a tour in English and all the people that we’re advertising to, promoting to, communicating to, we were communicating in English. But if we were an English speaking tour to local residents, we would have kind of lost credibility, because someone who’s lived here for four or five years, 10 years, or whatever, they’re normally going to be able to speak French. And they’re going to prefer to hear the presentation French. Because the depth of the vocabulary of the speakers are going to be far greater, if they’re a native, French speaking person, than if they tried to make the presentation in English.

Robert Levitt:

But actually we didn’t even have a choice because our speakers, while they’re very strong in their technical background, they don’t speak English. So we had to go with the bilingual approach.

Shane Whaley:

How did you market to locals? This is a big change for you, right?

Robert Levitt:

The marketing was very quick, because we posted on our Facebook site, and we posted on an English speaking Facebook site. So basically a Facebook site, that’s read by some 10 or 20,000 English speakers in the region. And in this case, it filled up very, very quickly. And it has to. Because in Facebook, if you are… You’re going to be seen at the top of the page for what, an hour or two? Not more, right, before you kind of fade away.

Robert Levitt:

So that’s how we advertised it. We were looking to fill basically eight places. Because we had a speaker interpreter. We had room for eight more, and we had over 40 requests within basically a couple of hours, which continued for the next sort of 48 hours. We ended up with more than 40 people that wanted to go on the first visit.

Shane Whaley:

That’s fantastic. Congratulations, Robert.

Robert Levitt:

So there’s clearly a lot of people that are very focused on activities, because they have nothing to do. They can’t leave, they can’t… And they’ve been stuck in their houses for two months. So they’re very anxious to, turn their sights towards the local activities, or the local market, or the local things to do.

Robert Levitt:

And now there are other people that are focusing on, what do we do? This is a staycation era. And there are people looking for suggestions in each town, of what people can do, because people are looking for activities, in the local region.

Shane Whaley:

Yeah, and we’re going to be focusing on this a fair bit on the show because everyone’s talked to death about virtual tours, and now we’re hopefully coming out of lockdown across the world. I keep seeing encouraging news from all over the world. And who knows, maybe even our governor will let me go and have my hair cut this week.

Robert Levitt:

Well he may let you, but I’m not sure you want to, right? That the…

Shane Whaley:

No, I do want to, I do. I look like I’m a hippie right now. Nothing wrong with hippies, but it’s not my look. But I really want to get my haircut. But that’s just an example of how cooped up we are, and these basic things we can’t do. And also living in the state of Vermont, I’ve not really done anything locally. I traveled to Berlin and hit all the museums and attractions, but I’ve not really done much locally. Or I’ll drive up to Montreal from here, but now I need to go and do things in my own state. So the challenge is for those tour operators here in Vermont, is they need to market to me. So you were very smart getting on Facebook. I presume you’ll be doing some Facebook ads, et cetera.

Robert Levitt:

We will boost the times, from time to time, a post that we do for like 15 year olds or something like that. But it’s not necessarily something that’s important to us. But look, there’s a couple of things that’s just really, really important besides bringing in people or besides the obvious. And this is a that we have a team of people and if they’re not working… And I’m not saying working for money, I’m saying working at all, because they get depressed. And the group of people that we have, they love to be in front of people. They feed off of the energy of making presentations. And when they’re… When it’s showtime, they’re on. And this is so important, because when they didn’t have… When they had this couple of months of just being at home, you could tell that people were getting depressed on our team.

Robert Levitt:

And as soon as they were out there it was like everything was forgotten. They were in the limelight. They want to show… They were in the show, the lights again. And this kind of thing I think was really important for the energy of the group. And also, once we started doing activity, the phone starts to ring. And then we find that people are asking us, not just for tours, but for other kinds of experiences. Whether they just want to go off and take a hike with a group of friends, and they need someone to take them or whatever. They see that we’re active. They see that we’re in business. And if you go in and you look at sort of the competitors, that used to be our competitors, their websites will say, due to COVID-19, we are closed.

Robert Levitt:

So for the moment we have the market to ourselves, which is a fantastic place to be, even though ultimately we’re not going to make a lot of money on the local market. We find that the local market, at some point, when their friends come from overseas, they’re going to be looking at us. And our particular product is normally private groups, and it’s quite expensive. We need to dominate our market. We need to be seen as the best player in the market. And this is giving us an opportunity to do that, that I just can’t believe, because we are the show.

Robert Levitt:

So when we did our visit, we had two journalists that came with us and a photographer. So we got press locally, we got press internationally. And this kind of publicity, you can’t pay for it. It really helps us build our network. And for us, this is sort of the name of the game. You have to build a network. But it also gave us a chance to sort of break into the old boys network. I’m American originally. So I’m not… Wasn’t born here, didn’t go to school with all the local functionaries, the local bureaucrats in the city of Nice, and the office of tourism. Which I’ve always had kind of an in, that I didn’t have before.

Robert Levitt:

But this is kind of reversing now, because we’re out there, we’re promoting, we’re taking these restrictions and we’re not complaining about them, but we’re actually implementing them and using them in a successful way. So we’re building our relationship with the city of Nice, with the office of tourism in a way that would have been very, very time consuming or would have taken years to do otherwise. Maybe we never could have done it. So there’s so many side benefits to this kind of thing.

Robert Levitt:

And then where we’re asking all the people that attend our tours now, because we had not collected recommendations for Google. So we’re in turn asking them to give us Google recommendations. So it’s just… There’s just a win, win, win on all sides for operating in this environment.

Shane Whaley:

Yeah, and that’s very smart what you’ve done with the media there, because I think it’s a good lesson for all of us. For Tourpreneurs out there that are starting to lead towards. The press are hungry for positive stories right now. They’ve had two months of very negative headlines, they’re looking for positive. They’re looking for signs that the economy is… I don’t want to use the word, getting back to normal, because we’re a long way off that, but there are green shoots of recovery.

Shane Whaley:

Whereas in the past tour operators may be struggling to get any press attention. I’m pretty sure now, if you’re the first one in your city, or your town to be doing this, the press are going to be interested. So don’t be scared of emailing the local editor or the newsroom and saying, “Hey, we’re leading our first tour on Saturday.” Because they’d probably send a photographer as well. I think that’s very smart of you, Robert.

Robert Levitt:

Yes, this is… Because the angle that the reporter from the local.. Our local paper’s called Nice-Matin, but the angle that they were looking at was, how are people reacting? And how are they operating under COVID-19 and living in Nice? Which is a tourism town. In fact, tourism was born in Nice. This was the first town of tourism. So it’s really, really important. And so to be able to see how somebody is operating within the confinements of the federal government’s laws, but still running activities was very attractive to the press.

Shane Whaley:

How do you mean first town of tourism? I mean, in France or…

Robert Levitt:

Well… No, Nice was the beginning of tourism in the world. I mean, it all began here in the 18th century. Before Nice, there was tourism within… It wasn’t tourism, there was pilgrimage, there was religious and there was people traveling for business. But there weren’t people that were traveling for leisure, and that all began in the 18th century. And it began here in Nice. So this was the beginning, of what we call the [inaudible 00:18:10] of tourism in the world. And at one point Nice was sort of the center of the world, where all of the aristocracy from all around Europe would spend the winter here.

Shane Whaley:

Yeah. I’ve learned something today, Robert.

Robert Levitt:

Yes. It’s quite an interesting place with huge potential, like most places. But you have to adapt to your situation. And obviously, the situation here in Nice is going to be very different from the situation in another city. Whether it’s Paris, or Milan or in Vermont, everybody’s got their own strengths and their own weaknesses. But I think your point was really that showing the press, and showing the local government as well, in our case, that you can do it. You can operate, and you can be successful even under the constraints, I think is a very good feel good story that everybody’s looking for.

Shane Whaley:

Definitely. What was the reaction of the guests after the tour?

Robert Levitt:

Well, the reaction was interesting because they gave the same kind of reaction they might’ve given, if we had done sort of a local base tour in January. Their reaction was, “Well, we learned all kinds of new things.” But they didn’t even really focus on the fact that they were wearing masks, or it wasn’t even… It was kind of forgotten. They didn’t even think about it. It just became sort of normal. The new normal, natural. That they would go through.

Robert Levitt:

But I will tell you that as we walked through the old town of Nice, the merchants there, were applauding the group. They were applauding us, because this was the first group of tourists. Now they didn’t understand that these were people that actually lived in the city, but they were applauding the fact that there was a tour going on. Because they were so hungry for tourism. And to see it was happening was making everybody happy.

Shane Whaley:

I salute you. And I thank you for sharing that on our Facebook group, because I know we were kind of joking. Or you were like, “I’m surprised at how positively this has been received.” But it is. Everyone in the tour industry looks at that and says, “Wow, that’s a little bit of normality.”

Shane Whaley:

Yes, your guests were wearing masks and everything else, but here’s a tour that’s being led. It’s not a virtual tour. It’s not an online experience. This is what we all love doing. And I think you’ve given… Every country is different right now. With different laws and restrictions and circumstances, but you gave a lot of people hope this weekend, sir.

Robert Levitt:

Well, I’ll tell you, what happened was people that were on the tour, then told their friends, who are now joining the next tour, which we’re doing on Friday. So it spreads. And I think it can only be a win win for everybody. But particularly, I think for Via Nissa and us as a tour operator.

Shane Whaley:

Great. Well keep sharing the photos with us. I know you got a lot of fans now on the Facebook group, and in the Tourpreneur community. Thank you very much, Shane.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to the Tourpreneur podcast. Be sure to visit tourpreneur.com, to join the conversation and access the show notes, including links to the resources mentioned on today’s episode. This is Tourpreneur.

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.