Developing virtual tours

Jump to

What is a tour? | Who goes on tours? | Why make a virtual tour? | Going digital | Digital platforms | Developing your own virtual tour | Making your tours accessible for everyone

What is a tour?

Seems obvious doesn’t it? A tour is when an ‘expert’ takes you around a museum and points at stuff and tells you facts. Well, sort of. Kind of. Sometimes. That is definitely a kind of tour. For many of us it is the first image that jumps to mind. 

Today there are in fact many different kinds of tours, tours for all kinds of audiences, about all kinds of subjects, run by all kinds of ‘experts’. Some tours really break the bounds of what a traditional tour is. For example some use performance, some use gamified elements, some are entirely fictional and many happen in very surprising places!

So simply put: A tour is a way for a person to learn about a place/space/story through being present in some capacity.

Tours normally are a journey, from ‘stop’ to ‘stop’. Each stop being part of the story of a particular theme or subject. Traditionally this would be in person, with a tour guide, and a group of people moving from location to location. But more and more tours have broken this mould. Whilst in all cases the person taking part in the tour is ‘present’ they may not have to be there physically:

  • A tour could be an audio track that you play in your own time whilst walking a route.
  • A tour could be a prerecorded journey which you play at home
  • A tour could be a live event broadcast anywhere in the world
  • A tour could be a self-guided virtual experience using augmented reality or images
  • A tour could break the rules entirely and could be in a setting 2000 years ago, or on another planet!

Who goes on tours?

If I’m honest, having worked in museums for 10 years I feel the most important question is ‘who doesn’t go on tours?’. But let’s start with the traditional concept of a heritage or cultural tour. In most people’s minds traditional tour groups fall into two categories:

  • Tours of historic locations and sites visited by enthusiasts
  • Tours of sites of cultural significance taken by tourists and holidaymakers

Both these audiences have been traditionally (but definitely not exclusively) white, middle class, and often made up largely of either families, or older adults. For a long time the audience make-up of tours has had real issues with diversity, and they generally do not represent the demographics of the local communities they take place in. In particular, up until recently, tours have seldom been marketed or developed with people of colour or working class, queer, young and/or disabled members of society in mind.

The biggest blocks to inclusion are niche subject matters, a presumption of a certain level of specific academic knowledge, guides who are also not diverse in identity or approach and lack of advertising or engagement with source communities.

More recently tours that cater to broader interests, that specifically target underserved demographics and often shake up the ‘stale old boring’ stereotype of a guided tour have lead to new audiences engaging with historic sites, stories and histories in brand new ways.

When thinking about virtual tours I would very much recommend focusing on their capacity to reach all kinds of audiences and go beyond the basic remit of what many people think when they hear the word ‘tour’. A good tour will attract classic tour going audiences. But a great tour will attract them and also engage people that normally wouldn’t go on a ‘regular’ tour.

Why make a virtual tour?

Going digital

Digital tours have existed for a while now. But in all honesty, bar a few examples, they have been for the most part an afterthought. A lot of places have not put much effort into developing a high quality online tour experience. So many are just a website with a set of images and text, some 360 degree explorable photos in galleries or perhaps a short video with a curator or expert. It is fair to say, as with many digital offerings, the COVID19 pandemic has forced much innovation in how these tours are delivered.

Much of these developments and new ideas have been out of necessity, but there have been some real learnings about the enormous benefits of developing and running a virtual tour above and beyond physical in person tours:

  • No requirement for managing and navigating the site
  • No need for people to travel to the site
  • Less issues with delayed arrival of groups
  • No need for health and safety concerns
  • Less issues of physical accessibility to sites
  • Reduced resources needed to deliver
  • Large numbers can be catered for on a virtual platform
  • Large international audiences can be reached beyond the location of a single physical site
  • Freedom to go anywhere and anywhen, unrestrained by the physical location! 

Virtual tours have become innovative and successful offerings. Here are some examples:

So hopefully you are intrigued and excited, but there are a few things to consider when producing a virtual tour:

  • However cool your tour is, people will not be there in person. How do you make up for the fact that they won’t be seeing things in real life?
  • Picture a Friday night, people have many ways of spending their time, why would they choose your tour?
  • How do you ensure you are doing something special, and unique compared to the many other digital offers?
  • What about tech issues, how will you navigate these if they happen?

Why not write down these headings on a piece of paper and brain storm some solutions.

Digital platforms

To run a tour you will need to consider how you want to produce and host it. There are an infinite number of ways you could do this. But here are some tried and tested methods.

1. Live Video Tour:

Using a platform such as Zoom or Teams you can invite visitors to a virtual space where you can take them around on a tour with a camera, or mix live talking with images/videos. The power of this is it is easy to use, people are used to these platforms and you can have an incredibly large audience. The challenge is to make this feel like a tour, not just a lengthy talk or lecture!

2. Pre-recorded Video Tour:

Same as above but with the added benefit that nobody needs to be present live to run the tour, and it can be played at anytime at a person’s convenience. The downside is the lack of any in person interaction, which is one of the main reasons people enjoy tours. It could just feel like watching a youtube video. Also, where is the excitement and energy of a ‘one off’ and ‘one of a kind’ experience when it’s simply a prerecorded show. You can still make this format work, but you will need to be innovative. 

3. Self Guided Tour:

This could be a set of beautiful photos/videos of the place that people click through at their own pace. It could be an audio recording or podcast. It could even be a set of tweets or Instagram posts. These are all possibilities and require less human resource. But as with pre-recorded tours, how do you give them life and urgency? Level of engagement with these experiences can be low unless you really think about how to make the offer unique and engaging. 

Developing your own virtual tour

Making your tours accessible for everyone

Remember that just because you are running a tour on a digital platform, which negates certain accessibility issues you still need to consider accessibility. 

Here are some things to consider:

Good luck. Why not go off and check out as many examples of virtual tours that you can find online. See what you felt worked and what didn’t. You can apply this ‘visitor centered’ approach when designing your own experience.