On June 21, a Sunday, Singapore-based Lara Ruth Behura, her husband and children logged into a Zoom video call. Soon they were joined by her parents from Bhubaneswar and brothers from Mumbai. The occasion was Father’s Day and the family had gathered for a virtual trip to Berlin. The family was taken on a live video tour of the German capital by Miha, a local guide working with TourHQ, the online travel platform through which Behura had booked the trip.
“We hadn’t met in a long time. My father had been to Berlin many years ago and had fond memories of the place. We are planning to do a Harry Potter Trail soon and Venice tour after that," said Behura.
During the 1 hour 30 minutes for which the family was on the Zoom call, they saw Berlin Wall, president’s house and several other landmarks from the city.
Travel industry has been hit the hardest due to covid-19. With restrictions on travelling, limited availability of flights and, above all, the fear of travelling, business opportunities have dried up for the entire industry, including those of local guides.
When the lockdown started, TourHQ started getting SOS requests from their guides, especially in Europe and other areas, which were severely affected by the pandemic. The platform has over 35,000 registered guides and small mom and pop stores across the globe and tours were the only source of income for many of them. That is when Vandana Om Kumar and Gaurav Kumar, founders of Singapore-based TourHQ, came up with the idea of offering customised online experiences where guides can continue to provide the same services to travellers but over a live video call on Zoom.
“We did a quick pivot and modified our software a bit. We started working on training our guides on how to do online experiences, how to use gimbals and shoot with smartphones," said Om Kumar.
The live tours have helped local guides. After the lockdown, for Shailesh Jethva, a Mumbai-based tour guide who provides tours of Dharavi, business came to a standstill. The live tours on TourHQ provided respite and he is now making more than he was through physical tours as the cost incurred on organising a physical tour is no longer involved.
Delhi-based tour guide Gajendra Singh was stuck at his home town in Kishangarh near Ajmer when the lockdown started. He has been working with TourHQ for many years. When the company reached out to him for a virtual tour of Kishangarh, he grabbed the opportunity.
“We are providing virtual tours of Kishangarh fort and Phool Mahal to tourists. I have been getting regular bookings, and this has helped me make some money while I am still here," said Singh.
During TourHQ's live Zoom calls guides walk around the places listed in the tour with their smartphone cameras switched-on all the time, while explaining the history and relevance of the place. The tourists on the call can ask guides to focus on any particular spot or object they find fascinating and ask questions about them. Private booking, where friends and family members join from different locations, are very popular with tourists.
“The online tours are supposed to be interactive and provide participants the feeling of actually being there, rather than just watching something," adds Kumar.
Tourists can book an online experience on TourHQ website. Usually a trip allows up to 10 screens at a time and costs anywhere between $50 and $100 for the entire trip. TourHQ recently tied up with MakeMyTrip for bookings. It has seen the number of bookings grow since.