Amid lockdowns, live streams and virtual tours bring new hope

One balmy April afternoon, against the backdrop of slightly overcast skies, a young male ranger drives an open safari jeep along a well-trodden, dusty trail at andBeyond Ngala Private Game Reserve. As he chaperones his guests deep into the African wilderness, he points out a pack of rare white lions here, a majestic-looking giraffe there, as his eager-beaver audience pepper him with questions.

  • From virtual museum tours to safari live streams, tourism boards and travel companies are getting creative to keep travel alive
  • Digital initiatives keep workers engaged and employed
  • A paradigm shift for the industry, as tourism businesses seek new ways to market their goods and services

One balmy April afternoon, against the backdrop of slightly overcast skies, a young male ranger drives an open safari jeep along a well-trodden, dusty trail at andBeyond Ngala Private Game Reserve. As he chaperones his guests deep into the African wilderness, he points out a pack of rare white lions here, a majestic-looking giraffe there, as his eager-beaver audience pepper him with questions.

Only that his audience is watching their host from behind a screen, while him, fielding queries in real-time via social media, in between regaling his guests with fascinating tidbits about wildlife. Midway, he marvels at the “unprecedented number of viewers” joining him on today’s virtual drive. “We have a whole new safari audience brought to us because of all the people stuck at home due to the coronavirus,” he muses.

andBeyond streams live safari scenes from South Africa to living rooms around the world

Enter the world of live streaming and virtual vacations, a craze which has spread as rapidly as the pandemic sweeping the globe.

The aforementioned game drive is birthed out of experiential luxury travel company andBeyond’s partnership with live wildlife broadcaster WildEarth to stream twice-daily game drives in real-time from andBeyond Ngala Private Game Reserve and Djuma Private Game Reserve in South Africa.

Hosted by expert field guides, the game drives will be streamed on the company’s website, as well as Facebook and YouTube channels, throughout April.

“Through these live streams, we hope to inspire, entertain, educate and bring the hope of travel back into the world’s lives, and inject some positivity in anticipation of when travel will rebound again,” said Nicole Robinson, CMO, andBeyond, who is leading the digital initiatives.

Since andBeyond launched the live safari feeds on April 1, its YouTube channel’s views have skyrocketed by 651 per cent, with 1,582 watch hours, according to Robinson.

As well, the organic reach of andBeyond’s Facebook page has seen a 130 per cent spike and 50 per cent increase in engagement, while their daily new followers have surged by 100 per cent, she added.

Virtual travel takes off

With social distancing forcing the temporary shutter of zoos, museums and tourist attractions, live streams and virtual tours allow these destinations to remain open virtually for business. At the same time, these creative endeavours are helping businesses to build their brands and customer base to ready for the rebound.

Thanks to these initiatives, virtual tourists worldwide are scaling mountains, exploring museums, and watching rockhopper penguins waddle around a Chicago aquarium – all from the comfort of their couch.

Amid its temporary closure, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Thailand has started sharing twice-daily live streams of its elephant residents enjoying a bath in the Ruak River.

The on-site elephant camp is Anantara’s charitable arm, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), which was set up in 2006 to improve the plight of Thailand’s elephants. The streams are hosted by a team of veterinarians via GTAEF’s Facebook page.

Mark Thomson, senior director of public relations & communications, Minor Hotels, said: “Despite this unprecedented current challenge, we want to show that Thailand’s natural beauty, its unique culture, and the warmth of the Thai people are all still here and waiting for everyone to return when it’s safe to travel again.”

A crew member live streaming the elephant residents at Anantara Golden Triangle in northern Thailand

The live stream is one of several digital initiatives rolled out by the hotel group, under the hashtag #AnataraEscapism, to offer guests a dose of travel escapism amid the current Covid-19 gloom, with their properties worldwide sharing bite-sized video content across its social media channels.

Likewise, the German National Tourist Board (GNTB) is striving to keep interest in the destination alive by bringing together their ongoing marketing activities on all social media channels in a campaign dubbed #DiscoverGermanyFromHome.

The campaign will take consumers through a virtual experience of destinations in Germany across the 16 federal states.

“The most important aspect of virtual travel is to recreate authentic moments as much as possible. Running social media campaigns where the public can share images and experiences under one hashtag creates organic conversation around a destination,” said Annette Biener, director, marketing & sales South East Asia, GNTO.

The virtual tours are currently under development by the GNTB, and are slated for launch by mid-April, according to Biener.

She added: “While virtual tours may not recreate the full immersion experience one can get with physical travel, it provides an authentic representation of a destination. Experiential aspects can be more vividly showcased, and travellers can get a more customised preview of a destination, as compared to relying on just the recommendations and perspectives of third-party sources.”

Thanyapura Health and Sports Resort in Phuket streams free fitness classes

Getting in on the virtual action too is Thanyapura Health and Sports Resort in Phuket which recently launched a series of free twice-daily online fitness classes via live stream on its Facebook page to help viewers stay active, healthy and connected during this period. Led by Thanyapura coaches, the classes include HIIT workouts, Muay Thai, and yoga sessions.

Spearheading the initiative is Giulia Bossi, chief digital strategy and communication officer at Thanyapura, who said that such online classes allow the resort to showcase its coaches, acquire new fans and remain connected to members and guests.

“From a commercial point of view, we are building awareness for our brand, coaches and capabilities. When travel rebounds, we hope to be top of mind for people looking for an active and healthy holiday destination,” she said.

Bossi shared that within a week, the live-streaming fitness classes reached over 10,000 people per video, with many more sharing their videos. While there are plans to roll out more group classes and on-demand private classes to cater to growing demand, there are no plans to monetise these online programmes.

“For now, we are treating this as a CSR project,” Bossi said.

Before one assumes that the virtual move is only possible for deep-pocketed travel and tourism organisations, smaller players demonstrate that they too can innovate for survival.

Food Playground, which conducts food and cultural programmes for tourists and corporate groups in its cooking studios in Singapore, is taking its classes online for a fee. Managing director Daniel Tan shared that his company is also embarking on paid assignments in recipe development and culinary video production with French dairy company Elle & Vire, as part of a sponsorship deal.

Singapore heritage tour operator Jane’s Tours is also taking the digital route, with virtual tours and short videos. Business owner Jane Iyer is now working to create a repository of suggested web links or print literature related to featured attractions.

Online is the new lifeline

Amid the backdrop of mounting layoffs and furloughs, such digital initiatives are helping to sustain jobs during this downturn.

Bossi opined that Covid-19 is forcing organisations around the world to rethink their business, service, financial and delivery models, and there has been a huge migration from offline to online in virtually every industry globally.

“Online is now the lifeline for many brick-and-mortar businesses. We are no exception. Our coaches continue to coach and our marketing department continues to support those efforts. Online (services) cannot replace our resort business, but it can certainly mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and keep our staff engaged and employed,” she said.

Proving to be a game-changer, live streams and virtual tours look set to stay, even after Covid-19.

Bossi noted that disruptive events, like Covid-19, paradoxically create new business and market opportunities. “These live streams have clearly demonstrated that there is a demand for online classes and their value as a service and as a marketing channel. Ironically, we were looking at developing online classes later this year, but Covid-19 accelerated that initiative and that’s the silver lining here,” she said.

Echoing that sentiment, Robinson added: “These are uncertain times – even more than usual. It is now more important than ever to remain close to our guests and trade partners to have an understanding of how travellers’ mindsets are shifting.

“Our hope is that our live streams will inspire our guests to plan for their future travels and that they come and experience these magical landscapes for themselves in person again when travel rebounds.” – Additional reporting by Pamela Chow and Therese Tan

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