5 min read

 As the pandemic forces all kinds of services into the digital realm, tour operators are forced to switch up their business models. Pivoting an in-person tour into a virtual one requires patience and dedication but as the experiences of The Intan and Everyday Tour Company show, the results are ultimately rewarding.


It is no secret that lockdowns cause cabin fever. As people stuck at home look for new ways to entertain themselves and indulge their travel bug, tour companies are leveraging this socio-cultural phenomenon. From tours to classes, these businesses have unveiled a suite of online products since the pandemic hit. At The Intan, a home museum dedicated to the Peranakan community, owner Alvin Yapp has launched virtual tours for a diverse range of clients, a Masterclass on his personal collection and a web-based game about Peranakan society. Meanwhile at the Everyday Tour Company, which specialised in alternative walking tours pre-pandemic, founder Pei Shyuan Yeo has taken some existing tours virtual and developed a new, interactive quiz-cum-tour based around the Crazy Rich Asians movie. That has been so successful that she now has more thematic tours in the pipeline.

These products were born as pandemic-proof pivots but they are here to stay even when international travel resumes. Both companies see virtual tours as complementary to in-person events and intend to continue these new services in the long-term. The way that you watch a movie on Netflix will be the same way people take a virtual tour of museums," said Yapp, adding that he does not expect virtual tours to ever replace the physical versions. "They just provide a different insight and it encourages the visitor to want to visit me," he added. Yeo echoed similar sentiments: "Virtual tours will whet people’s appetite for real-world tourism," she explained. She believes that "skill-oriented online experiences where you can learn something" or "experiences with high cultural content of a specific country" are headed for particularly high growth.

This bullish attitude follows an extensive period of research, brainstorming and more than a few challenges. For The Intan and Everyday Tour Company, thinking ahead and anticipating consumer needs at such a precarious time was critical to their respective success. "We projected that people would be gifting virtual gifts for Christmas rather than physical presents," Yapp described—a factor that underpinned the fast roll out of these new services. Yeo, meanwhile, explained how she learnt to apply an "inventor's mindset" to plan for the future. "I question long-held assumptions to the industry and stress test it with 'Does this approach hold true today and will it hold true tomorrow?'"

Navigating this tricky terrain requires a great deal of passion, discipline and a collaborative spirit. Here is how each company made it work.

Love what you do

Adopting a new business model at a time of crisis is never easy but it helps if you truly adore your job. Both Yapp and Yeo described how they rose to the occasion and overcame obstacles thanks to deep-seated interest and care for their work.

Yapp described how he was initially skeptical about virtual experiences and didn't feel comfortable with his first few attempts at the new format. "It was nerve-wracking the first few times, I felt disappointed with myself… It felt flat, even though I had a lot of encouragement." Still, he persevered and his commitment gradually paid off. By the fourth try, things finally began to click. "When the parts fall into place and you see the engine moving smoothly and achieving the desirable goals, it was an adrenaline rush for me and I couldn't wait to do the next virtual tour," he described. "Apart from enjoying doing it, I felt that visitors enjoyed the experience and that they were craving more and that this was very marketable. And so with that, I pushed forward and went ahead to pivot our physical tours to virtual tours, which was after the first lockdown last year." His success was near instantaneous. After doing his first virtual tour for Airbnb Experiences, he plucked up the courage to reach out to corporates and schools, quickly finding himself booked for multiple slots. He even started conducting sessions for the elderly in hospitals and mental institutions - new audiences that he rarely dealt with pre-pandemic.

Like Yapp, Yeo was also cautious about diving into the virtual world. "At the beginning, I did not think that online experiences were going to work but it happened," she described. "It is one of the most interesting things I have done in my life because in the past year, we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last and how much time and effort I should put into these virtual tours." Ultimately, her drive to educate and entertain her customers overshadowed any doubts. "The main thing is passion, you must be interested and put in 101 percent dedication to your work," she said. "When I conceptualise new products, I always put myself in the customer’s head, what would I like to learn about Singapore? What fascinates me about the city?"

Fine-tuning the details

The process of adapting physical tours to virtual versions is more complicated than it looks. For Yapp, "everything had to change." Apart from the logistics and storyline, planning a virtual tour is very different from a physical tour because it requires a different level of attention, he noted. "There is a whole art and science to it."

It gets trickier when modifying virtual services based on audience type. For example, "there are a lot of differences between the Singapore and overseas visitor," Yapp noted. "The expectations are very different. The level of communication and the speed, and the jokes I make are very different," he explained, noting that overseas visitors require more background information while he is able to joke around more with locals.

"Every tour is a different experience, because the make-up of the people are different, different people ask different questions, so you can think of each tour as really customised to the audience of the group," added Yeo. She recounted one incident when one overseas customer did not speak much English: "I have a lot of insights on the flow of the experience so even though we were not physically together, I know exactly how they are feeling. We were communicating with signals and it was amazing, because we were smiling and laughing." The fact that she and her audiences share an interest in Singapore, whether the love of street food, art or the Crazy Rich Asians movie, is what holds it all together, she noted. "At the end of the day, a successful virtual experience depends on interaction. Because if you don’t connect with people or engage with them, they can just watch Netflix or YouTube instead."

Assess the profitability of new services

Going virtual requires upfront investment in tech, research and manpower but it has proved financially profitable for both companies.

“Virtual tours have the ability to scale massively without the associated cost,” explained Yeo. “That means that the marginal variable cost of an additional participant is extremely low. Also, much of the materials or set-up cost has already been invested. Unlike in-person tours today where cost increases with safe distancing measures, personnel and equipment cost, little of that exists in a virtual environment.” Yapp, meanwhile, has received support from local universities amid growing demand for virtual group tours.

Sometimes, the biggest benefit of all goes well beyond an annual profit. “The biggest reward for me is being able to create a personal relationship with my audience when it’s often considered ‘virtually’ impossible, no pun intended,” according to Yapp.

Don't forget your peers

At times of crisis, competitors can become collaborators. When they are not working on virtual offerings, both The Intan and Everyday Tour Company strive to strengthen ties with fellow industry players in hopes of creating a more supportive sector once travel fully resumes.

"At the start of the pandemic, we started to form alliances and partnerships with strategic stakeholders like Raffles Hotel, where our merchandise linked to their online store," Yapp explained. He also kept in touch with tour guides and updated them about his work to keep communication channels open. "We were concerned how they were doing as well." Yeo has also linked up with tour operators to cross-sell or develop products jointly. "Within the greater travel industry, we also have formed even closer ties with the hotels in Singapore, and also with partners within the greater ecosystem overseas."

Why is it important to retain this collaborative spirit? "As competition becomes more complex, it takes cross-boundary collaborations to build products, attract customers and achieve results," Yeo summed up. Rather than viewing your peers through a competitive lens, she recommends looking for opportunities to unite, "I think this pandemic has proved that we can and are stronger together."


Special thanks to Everyday Tour Company and The Intan for their support and contributions to the development of this story. 

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