The case for virtual experiences to thrive even as in-person travel returns | Tech US News


When the pandemic hit and travel stopped for two years, tour companies had to offer virtual tours to survive.

Now that people are traveling again, there’s no need for virtual tours anymore, right? Amazon has shut down its virtual experiences platform after just two years, as confirmed during the company’s latest earnings call, which could be taken as a pretty clear answer to that question.

But no, that assumption is wrong, at least for now. Despite that move by Amazon, there is growing demand for specific virtual experiences in late 2022. Three virtual tour startups each reported continued growth: Heygo, Beeyonder, and Wowzitude.

Each of those companies, all founded during the pandemic, say the need for virtual experiences in April 2020 gave way to them filling a need that had gone largely unnoticed.

Travel for those who can’t

Boston-based Beeyonder’s main sources of revenue are now corporate groups and high-end companies, according to founder and CEO Brittany Palmer.

She plans to increase sales to schools next year in response to the demand the company has seen for educational supplements.

“The possibilities are endless at this point in terms of how you can use virtual tours to supplement or enhance people’s lives,” Palmer said. “That’s what we’ve seen an increase in.”

Palmer, a bilateral amputee, loves to travel but has trouble staying active for long periods of time. He founded the company to ensure that expanded travel opportunities remained an option after the pandemic. That’s still a big focus, but the business has expanded.

Since then, the startup has welcomed nearly 22,000 people from more than 20 countries. The third quarter of this year was 12 times higher than last year, he said, adding that he expects 15-20 percent growth every month for next year.

The company has raised a total of $2 million, including through a seed round earlier this year, and Palmer is working to raise another $3 million early next year.

Each of the tours is live and interactive. The most popular include a pyramid tour in Egypt, a presentation-style tour of Antarctica, and a coffee farm in Costa Rica.

Improvement of existing services

Wowzitude focuses on tours for senior living communities, while sister brand Our Travel Circle focuses on tours for special interest groups, museums and more. Through these business-to-business partnerships, consumers have the option of purchasing an annual subscription to the service.

It was founded during the pandemic by tourism industry veteran Susan Black, who most recently served as commercial director of CIE Tours International.

One of the unnamed partner museums has 90,000 members who now have access to the service, he said. The company also held a weekly tour of the Jewish Heritage Museum during the past year.

Black recently signed a deal with an employee benefits program that gives its 5 million members access to the service. Other customers are using the platform as a way to get travelers excited about taking a trip in person.

“It’s growing through the roof,” said New Jersey-based Black.

“We’ve just seen steady growth and we also have a 4 percent turnover rate on average, so people just don’t quit.”

The company began during the pandemic when Black and his 96-year-old mother met via Zoom. Her mother asked if they could visit somewhere other than Black’s living room, and that’s when Black connected with a guide in her network for a virtual tour of Dublin.

Black saw an opportunity and began building a virtual service meant to last for the long term. Because of the tight operating expense, he says the company is already profitable.

“I was really invested in who the audience was, what the product was and that the audience would continue post-Covid,” Black said. “This has always been designed as virtual, it will always continue to be that kind of thing.”

The company employs more than 100 licensed guides in more than 100 locations.

“We pay our guides extraordinarily well; we know we compete with in-person tours.”

Each tour has a guide and host who can handle any connectivity issues during the tour. There is also a design team that provides additional cultural information along with each visit.

Between all the moving parts, scaling this type of business while maintaining quality can be difficult, he said.

“Unless you see him as a hawk,” he said. “In this case, small is better.”

“It goes against the grain for these big companies, that’s not in their model.”

The future of virtual travel

Heygo had booked 2 million virtual tours since it was founded in 2020 and when it raised $20 million last April. Now, the grand total is 4 million reservations, according to founder and CEO John Tertan.

Like the others, Heygo is planning to expand into the education sector and is starting to partner with some museums.

The London-based startup is a business-to-consumer company that generates revenue through a cut of tips that guides receive from users.

Tertan said the company has been a social connector between users, especially for those who might not otherwise be able to travel, leading many of them to meet in person.

“For them, I think the community side of the platform really resonates,” Tertan said. “And that’s why they stay: they make friends, they find other like-minded people.”

He went on to say that the startup’s 16 employees are working on a product aimed at enhancing in-person experiences with virtual experiences. There’s more to come on that, but he believes that’s the real future of virtual travel.

“It was never about one or the other,” Tertan said.

“Virtual tours meet a need for a subset of the population, which is fantastic. And we’re on a mission to continue to create more value for larger subsets of the population.”


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