Online experiences: A quick fix or a new opportunity for tourism innovation?
For years, travelling has been an essential part of our lives, a way to relax, to get to know new places and people, to experience new things, and to find new perspectives in life. The pandemic suddenly changed everything – forcing us to stay at home or in our close surroundings. Travelling, as we knew it, has changed, if not forever, at least for the near future. Since the pandemic started, there has been some interesting development ideas and trends in a tourism industry constrained by mobility restrictions. One trend growing in popularity is the online experiences which refer to the act of visiting places and consuming tourism services through a webcam. Although this trend has become nearly a standard, there is still a need to understand how they are produced and consumed as well as their implications for the future of tourism.
In 2020, the sharing economy platforms like Airbnb and Doerz launched a series of online experiences to offer ordinary people the possibility to produce and consume meaningful experiences in an online format. Interestingly, many online experiences are currently being organized by companies. Indeed, the concept has proven to be lucrative for tourism companies searching for new ways to connect to their customers during the pandemic. With the support of the project “Responsibility and Value Creation in the Sharing Economy” and in cooperation with Doerz, 40 tourism master’s students were invited to test and evaluate online experiences offered on the Doerz platform. The testing and evaluation, which focused on value creation in the context of online experiences, were done as part of an assignment of the course Designing Tourism Futures, University of Lapland.
From wine tasting in Rome to an online tour in Malaga
The students tested a wide variety of online experiences ranging from wine tasting in Rome, writing a song with an artist, baking a cinnamon roll, online tour in Malaga, learning about arctic life in Inari, street art in Helsinki to a mindfulness exercise in a forest. Each student was able to choose one online experience based on their personal interest and preferences. After testing the online experiences and writing their reflections, the students were invited to a focus group to share and discuss their experiences with their peers and teachers. For most of the students, this was the first time they tried an online experience. Many were really longing for travelling and looking forward to testing them. Nevertheless, a commonly shared opinion among the students was that online experiences or virtual tourism cannot ever replace real travel experiences. Despite these prejudices towards online experiences, there were high expectations about what they would be like.
Storytelling and personalization on the spotlight
Contacting, booking and interaction with the hosts on Doerz platform was considered smooth and easy. Most online experiences were described as positive and inspiring. In particular, the human and personal touch as well as the storytelling skills of the host were viewed by the students as essential elements contributing to value creation. Indeed, it was through the personal experiences and stories of the host that the guests got a feeling of authenticity and being closely connected, almost like a friendship.
There were opportunities for co-creation of a personalized experience for the guests in close peer-to-peer interactions. For example, the guests could engage with the host by asking exact questions on the theme and jointly co-creating knowledge and the experience. When one host had accidently a dog visiting the online guests via the screen, this coincidence turned out to “break the ice”, becoming a positive experience for the guests. Also, the enthusiasm and positive attitude of the host was always highly appreciated.
It comes down to technology and the customer journey
Technical issues during the implementation were the biggest negative factors. Sometimes there were challenges with the connection or the video was lagging. Some experiences were lacking the live touch and were considered too much like lectures. Also, more immersive experiences were sought after. For example, there were suggestions of using 360° filming, adding elements of VR (virtual reality) or AR (augmented reality) to the experiences. Online experiences have just entered the market as a consequence of the pandemic. So it is obvious that not everything is perfect and ready yet when it comes to this new service offering. There is still much room for improvement in the core of the experiences, in their design, process and implementation. It seems, that sometimes the on-site experiences have been quickly turned into online experiences without adequately adapting the customer journey to an online context.
The future of online experiences
After conducting this experiment with the students, we see a lot of potential in the future of online experiences. In particular, sharing economy platforms seem to be able to offer direct access to destinations, local people and all these immersive and personal experiences people are longing for in a pandemic world. Online experiences may offer possibilities for exploring destinations beforehand and even get to know locals before actually visiting the place. Online experiences can also play an essential role in promoting more accessible immersive experiences that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age, physical disabilities, health conditions and financial possibilities. The opportunity to travel virtually represents an alternative for those concerned with climate change and our impact on the planet. Indeed, they offer the possibility to travel sustainable, engaging with places and people around the world – comfortably from own cosy sofa!
Co-authored with Petra Paloniemi.