When everything-from-home comes, can travel be far behind?

As Covid-19 put a screeching halt to all tourism activity in March, TourHQ, a marketplace that connects local guides to tourists was staring at a bleak business outlook, not only for itself but for the 35,000 local tour guides registered on its platform.

“All bookings got cancelled and the guides were left with no pay and no social security safety net,” Gaurav Kumar, founder of TourHQ, which has offices in Hong Kong and New Delhi, told Quartz.

While Kumar and his team were thinking about how to keep the business afloat, they were spurred into action because of the desperate calls they were getting from their guide partners, some even requesting small loans to make ends meet.

In March, Kumar went back to the drawing board to look at ways in which the idea of a holiday could work without actually travelling.

“Our understanding was that local lockdowns will be lifted before international borders open up,” Kumar said. This meant that guides would be able to move around, with certain restrictions, in their own cities. And it opened up the possibility of taking guided tours online.

But taking a physical experience to the virtual space came with its own challenges.

Tourists wearing protective face masks walk on the Piazza del Duomo in Italy's central Milan. Photo credit: Miguel Medina/AFP

Tinkering with the online model

The first hurdle was a consistent and steady internet connection that could easily live stream the tour.

“We had to look at factors like heavy winds to get clear audio. We tested out some of these tours with windshields near their device’s audio,” explains Kumar. During this process, TourHQ worked with the guides and tried on several potential activities that could make for good virtual candidates.

Most of these tours were three to six hours long, which was unwieldy for a tourist sitting in front of their laptop and watching it remotely. This led to cutting the itinerary short, to about 90 minutes, and packing in as much of the tour as possible.

The other factor was getting steady images, given that most of these tours involve walking around. TourHQ, Kumar said, helped the guides purchase image stabilising gimbals on which their streaming device could be mounted.

“But there was also the challenge of making these tours interactive,” Kumar said. “We needed guides with great screen presence, those who could answer questions, and engage the audience through the video call.” This meant that out of the many activities and tours in the trial phase, TourHQ could only take about 20% live.

The company also built its technology from scratch, enabling guides to connect with their audience directly through its platform. It also had to create a capability to ensure that multiple screens could stream the live tours.

Today, TourHQ has about 180 virtual tours in 100 cities across all continents except Antarctica, Kumar said.

Taking holidays online

When TourHQ went live on May 18, it was one of the first in the industry to build that capability. Airbnb began offering at-home experiences in April, but those were largely in the form of live classes and not tours.

Now, global tour providers such as Thomas Cook, Viator, and ToursByLocals also offer virtual tours across cities and genres, allowing guides to sustain their livelihoods.

These tours are vastly different than merely watching a YouTube video online. A private guide walks a finite number of viewers through the most exotic and culturally vibrant locations in the world. Most of these sessions are open to questions and answers at the end, making them interactive and less like watching a documentary.

TourHQ has partnered with bookings portal MakeMyTrip for online holidays, which has meant that a huge part of its audience is currently Indian.

For MakeMyTrip, this was a no-brainer to drive consumer engagement on its platform in the near-absence of all leisure travel. “Our consumer study during the lockdown also indicated a telling demand from travellers looking to connect with local hosts and storytellers across geographies,” said the travel platform’s spokesperson.

A big attraction, it seems, has also been the price point. Live tours on MakeMyTrip begin at Rs 99 for domestic destinations and Rs 799 for international destinations per screen. This, according to TourHQ’s Kumar, is only a fraction of what a physical holiday tour would cost travellers. “A tour in Tel Aviv, Israel, would cost a family roughly $150 [Rs 11,000] if they were to visit in person. Online, it would now cost them only $30 [Rs 2,200],” said Kumar.

Kumar sees this model has various use cases.

Safe way to ‘travel’

Virtual tours, for one, could be here to stay till at least a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed and travel goes back to normal.

“But even once the vaccine comes, vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with comorbidities may not be able to travel immediately,” Kumar said.

School field trips, too, could take a while to go from online to physical travel. And given the cost-effective nature of these tours, it could be a great way for educational institutions to keep their students engaged and safe, according to Kumar.

But experiencing a tour vicariously may still not be enough to satisfy one’s wanderlust. Kumar, though, insists that these tours have a use case for such people too.

“You could use these tours to plan your holiday, see if it is suitable for the elderly in your family, research where you’d like to stay, etc,” he said.

Holidays, as different as they may be in the “new normal” will benefit the local economy of a travel destination, including the guides who would be finally able to charge the full fare of their tours in person.

This article first appeared on Quartz.