Virtual Experiences — the Next Best Thing in Destination Marketing

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

Virtual Experiences

Maneet Chauhan — who owns Nashville restaurants Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Chaatable, The Mockingbird, and Tansuo — leads a virtual cooking class for meeting planners with Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation.

The week before the Democratic National Convention kicked off, VISIT Milwaukee released a series of virtual experiences — 30 short videos that take viewers through the city’s nooks and crannies, exploring everything from its beaches to its famous cheese curds. Even though the 2020 DNC ended up being a mostly virtual convention, the original host destination wanted to “[seize] the opportunity in the global spotlight,” VISIT Milwaukee said in a press release.

“We originally launched the series of videos … so that we could send them to delegates, caucuses, donors, and national media,” said Claire Koenig, the bureau’s senior media relations manager. “But the plan has always been to use both of these tools for our sales team to take to their clients and prospective clients to show them all Milwaukee has to offer when they bring their next meeting here.”

VISIT Milwaukee is not unlike the many other destinations trying to connect with customers from afar. For DMOs, hosting virtual FAMs and travel experiences has been key to keeping business moving and their destination top of mind. In June, Québec City Business Destination hosted a virtual educational tour for 80 planners. The three-day FAM took participants through a comprehensive tour of the city, where major public gatherings are still temporarily prohibited, and included presentations from local suppliers along with live experiences, like a cocktail tasting. “We did receive leads after the tour,” said Ann Cantin, Québec City Business Destination’s director of communications and marketing. “This is fantastic. But to tell you the truth, our goal was to create engaging and interesting content and stay connected with people. We wanted to create an experience to check in with people.”

Wow Factor

To capture a Zoom-fatigued audience, many DMOs are tapping into new technology to create more engaging experiences. Explore Asheville has partnered with Destination Virtual Tours, which specializes in 3D virtual tours and aerial photography, to produce a more immersive style of site tour. Visit Indy has teamed up with Concept3D, a 3D-mapping platform, to build an interactive map of the city’s convention campus. And Experience Columbia SC will roll out experiences in 3D and 360-degree, virtual-reality technology, powered by SkyNav, this fall.

Others have opted to play up their unique local assets. VISIT Milwaukee asked prominent members of the local community to narrate its videos. In August, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. held a cooking class over Zoom with the Nashville-based restauranteur and celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan for planners. The bureau even shipped some ingredients to the 41 participants in advance so they could cook along with the Chopped judge in real time. Denver-based DMC Imprint Group, a partner of Visit Denver, has conducted several virtual experiences for groups, including a Colorado-themed trivia night, a live beer tasting, and a Q&A with a former Denver Broncos player (complete with virtual autographs).

Deviating From the Plan

immersive experiences

For private groups, Atlanta-based Unexpected Virtual Tours can customize treat boxes for their Southern-themed tours in addition to white-labeling the virtual experience.

Tour companies are taking a similar route, seizing the opportunity to engage with travel-hungry customers. Unexpected Atlanta launched its virtual arm, Unexpected Virtual Tours, in March. Along with diving into the history of the South, tours include interactive food demonstrations, hands-on activities participants can do home, and the option of adding on a gift box, shipped directly to attendees’ doors. Currently, the Atlanta-based company offers seven virtual tour options as well as branding and customization for private groups.

Jay Wei, CEO of Discover Live, initially focused on the senior care market when he started his virtual travel company in 2018. This year, he expanded to the event industry, organizing everything from virtual wine experiences to neighborhoods walks for corporate clients and large groups. Tours are conducted over Zoom, where participants can watch a local tour guide take them through an experience in real time. “We let audiences drive the tour flow,” Wei said. “If audiences decide to stop at a pastry shop, or a farmers market, or a street performer during the tour, we would deviate from our planned tour route to take audiences to experience whatever is happening then and is interesting to them.”

Wei also incorporates in-person elements — shipping wine to attendees for a vineyard tour, for example — or tweaks the topic to apply to the group’s industry or interests. “For an upcoming global real estate investor conference, we are working with the organizer to have live neighborhood walking tours in several major world cities, and our tour guides will be talking about the local market conditions,” Wei said, “while walking the selected neighborhood.”

immersive experiences

A tour guide with Discover Live (lower right) takes participants on a live tour of Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Discover Live has offered interactive virtual tours since 2018.

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.

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