When COVID19 related restrictions hit last year, the travel industry worldwide was decimated. Many boutique experience curators moved online doing Virtual Experiences. We did that too at Immersive Trails. But was it a knee-jerk decision?
It wasn’t. We were planning on tech-based immersive offerings since Chelsea McGill and I founded Immersive Trails in 2017. But as a bootstrapped startup, we did not have the resources to invest in the tech at that point. But whenever we developed and curated any experience, we always thought about how we would do it, when we have a Virtual Experiences platform, some day. We also discussed in detail amongst ourselves about how we could make the narrative and the journey engaging for a remote audience.
COVID19 restrictions gave us an opportunity to pivot, and because we had been planning this for a long time, it helped us pivot more effectively and quickly. As a lean startup we needed to make the right investments, only spending money on the basic infrastructure we needed to make our experiences immersive, engaging and enriching for a remote audience. The response from a global audience was enthusiastic.
Within days competitions cropped up, as more and more companies pivoted to virtual experiences. With competition came the unnecessary dirtiness of it- copycat efforts, fake negative TripAdvisor reviews, rumour-mongering, and what not. This could have distracted us from our path. It took a toll on our mental health, but we knew what we are creating was something special, a work of art. Something that brought a lot of joy and learning for people. So we stuck on. We focused more, became more resilient.
Then, by November 2020, travel opened up. A majority of those who made the digital pivot stopped offering virtual experiences and went back to their main business of curating group tours. We were at a crossroads. While our mailbox was full of requests of group tours, we decided it would be irresponsible for us, as an ethical purpose-driven company, to open up too quickly, without weighing the risks that came with it, for our customers, for the members of the communities of the neighbourhoods through which our in-person tours go, and for the members of our team.
We decided consciously that while “reopening” in November would bring us a lot of revenue, the health and safety costs were not at all justified. We stuck on with virtual experiences. Revenue decreased, but people kept on coming on them. We spent our time doing more research for newer virtual experiences. We were sure that we wanted to stay in the virtual experiences space in the foreseeable future. We knew that if we just stayed at it, we will one day lead the market. That we will probably be one of the very few who would survive and do well in that marketplace as others exit only falling back to the virtual space as stopgap measures during subsequent restrictions. We gathered deep insight in the travel industry and could see that travel was changing, and changing for good, and we innovated.
As travel opened and revenue ebbed. Advisors, solicited and unsolicited ones, indicated to us that it might be best to abandon ship on the Virtual Experiences model. That virtual experiences is a passe and with the resumption of travel, the old, conventional model of tourism was going to make a comeback. We stuck to our resolve. We knew tourism has changed for good, and the old model is not going to work in the new normal. Travelers would be more interested in the offbeat. They would be more interested in going solo, rather than in large groups. They would be more interested in connecting with communities, finding unique stories, and exploring the least explored. They would be more interested in longer, slower travel and traveling to check some boxes will replace traveling to learn. We believe that technology and the virtual space has a massive role to play in travel in the new normal. With the proper use of the virtual, you can deliver value. You can help travelers to plan better, to learn better, and to see and understand the unique, and the oft overlooked. You can keep travelers safe, you can make them more connected with the local communities, and you can make travel more responsible. Virtual and in-person travel won’t stay in isolation. These will be closely integrated and the one would add value to the other.
As we prepare to raise our seed round, after four and half years of being a bootstrapped, lean startup, we have ambitions in becoming a Global market leader in this new normal of travel. We stuck to what we believed in, we observed and listened to people, and we innovated based on that. If you believe truly, madly, deeply in something, you just need to listen with empathy, and see who is, as Seth Godin would put it “your tribe”. If you listen to your tribe, and your tribe loves what you are creating for them, then stick to it. Success may be slow, but it will be sure to come. Remember, the customers are real people, and not algorithms and stats and numbers. They are not goldfishes, and that conventional wisdom is pretty insulting, actually.
Yes, mass tourism is happening now, right after the lockdowns. But that’s just the pent up urge. This will be an exception, and this will ebb away and give way to more offbeat, and solo travel. That’s where the future of tourism lay.