Virtual tours are lucrative business for some tourism players amid pandemic

Guides shored up their Internet connection, steadied their cameras and got comfortable delivering live commentaries while taking people around a district. PHOTO: MONSTER DAY TOURS

SINGAPORE - It has been a quiet June holiday for Mrs Sylvia Lye and her six-year-old daughter Alison.

With in-person activities such as art classes postponed as part of heightened alert measures, Mrs Lye had to look for new ways to keep her daughter occupied at home.

Virtual tours and activities offered some respite.

In the past two weeks, mother and daughter have visited a farm in New Zealand run by a Singaporean living there, and gone on an art walk to check out murals in Little India, followed by an art-making class.

Both offerings were launched last month by local outfit Monster Day Tours.

In the year or so since pandemic lockdowns swept the world, virtual experiences here have come into their own.

Operators transformed in-person tours into virtual itineraries, coming up with new ways to keep guests entertained.

Guides, meanwhile, shored up their Internet connection, steadied their cameras and got comfortable delivering live commentaries while taking people around a district.

Mr Amanpreet Bajaj, Airbnb's general manager for South-east Asia, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan, says about three-quarters of online guests are looking to experience new things and other cultures and lifestyles.

The home-sharing platform launched online experiences last April and lists 15 of them by hosts in Singapore.

One of them, magician Sng Ming Da, 30, retooled his show for online when he launched it in June last year.

He introduced new tricks, dropped those that would not work on camera and refreshed his patter and interaction to engage guests virtually - sometimes even more so than in person.

"In a way, the distance enhances the effect. It makes the magic feel more impossible," says Mr Sng, whose repertoire includes mentalism, or appearing to read people's minds.

Magician Sng Ming Da retooled his show for online when he launched it last June. PHOTO: SNG MING DA

From across a screen, when he correctly predicts the card they have guessed, audiences are doubly wowed.

Mr Dhruv Shanker, who goes by the moniker Mad Onion Slicer, runs an online cooking class called "Boring Indian Curry".

The expatriate from India, who is in his 30s, used to run cooking classes at his Tanjong Pagar condominium on weekends. He moved to Singapore seven years ago and lives with his wife and two dogs.

But, going by the response, his class is anything but boring.

He says he earns about 50 per cent more than before the pandemic.

Mr Dhruv Shanker, who goes by the moniker "Mad Onion Slicer", leads online cooking classes from his Tanjong Pagar condominium unit. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LAURYN ISHAK

Since launching in-person cooking classes on Airbnb Experiences in 2019, he has had about eight to 10 guests a week, usually over the weekend. Now, he runs daily online sessions with roughly the same number.

He and Mr Sng also draw an international audience, which they say make up 95 per cent of their participants. To fit their schedules, Mr Sng and Mr Shanker start their sessions as early as 6am.

For them, the virtual experiences have proved just as profitable than their in-person ones, if not more.

Although priced much lower - an online cooking class costs, on average, about a quarter of a physical one - their reach is exponential.

Demand is more stable and less subject to tourism seasons. And delivering experiences from home cuts down on commuting and preparation time, which means hosts can do more sessions a day.

Corporate bookings, too, have proved lucrative.

Mr Sng's largest online performance was for 1,000 people as part of a virtual conference.

Magician Sng Ming Da performs Shadows in the Dark, a magic show with a spooky twist that is not for the faint of heart. PHOTO: SNG MING DA

He also gets regular bookings for virtual team-building and happy hour sessions, charging about $500 for a group of up to 30 people.

Mr Shanker, who holds a full-time job in marketing, gets a healthy stream of corporate bookings - about one group of 20 to 40 people weekly. "Keeping morale up at this time is important for employers," he says.

To keep things lively, he will sometimes encourage friendly competition between colleagues as they cook.

Monster Day Tours has also seen some success running virtual tours.

Since last year, it has run 10 to 15 tours each month, including large groups of up to 300 people for school bookings and 150 for corporate ones.

Founder Suen Tat Yam says the company now earns about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of pre-Covid-19 revenue, with virtual tours contributing about two-thirds of that.

New offerings help spur demand.

Last month, the company collaborated with local studio ArtFlock to launch a new hybrid tour-workshop comprising a virtual art walk around murals in Little India, as well as an online art workshop.

A total of 110 people have attended three runs of the tour-workshop so far.

"Collaborations have been one of the biggest things to come out of the pandemic," says Mr Suen. "Working with other businesses lets us elevate and give recognition to one another, which will continue even after travel returns."

Last month, Monster Day Tours collaborated with local studio ArtFlock to launch a new hybrid tour. PHOTO: MONSTER DAY TOURS

Tembusu CSR, a company that specialises in teaching children about sustainability, also found workshop partners in rice growers The Little Rice Company and Greenology, a firm that develops ideas for urban greening, such as green walls and urban farms.

Last week, they ran a children's online workshop on food waste where participants planted rice and built a self-watering planter to grow Brazilian spinach.

Tembusu CSR founder Sho Nan Fang says they are looking to continue such collaborations for online and offline workshops.

Even as Singapore emerges tentatively from heightened alert measures - walking, cycling and kayaking tours can take up to 20 people, separated into groups of five - Mr Suen believes virtual tours are here to stay. He is working with other attractions such as insect farm Insectta to launch virtual tours in the third quarter of the year.

Further afield, the company has also collaborated with Singaporeans in Kyoto, Japan, and New Zealand to run virtual tours. It is now looking to launch one in Hong Kong later this year, working with a tour operator there.

As for Mr Shanker, he plans to launch an online cooking class for Singapore food, showcasing pineapple achar and chilli prawns.

As prawns are more accessible than crab and overseas guests have to source ingredients themselves, he has to tweak the chilli crab dish.

He, too, believes that virtual experiences will be a tourism mainstay: "It is a business model that did not exist before, which has come to life. Two years ago, I did not think I would be doing this, and even scaling it up and expanding into new cuisines."

Zoom in on these virtual tours

1. Explore Little India and take part in an art workshop

Artwalk with Monster Day Tours. PHOTO: MONSTER DAY TOURS

Follow a guide from Monster Day Tours on a live virtual tour of Little India to check out murals by local artists that depict stories of Singapore's past.

For instance, A Ride Through Race Course Road by Jaxton Su shows a horse galloping through a market - a nod to the horse-racing track once located in the area. After the tour, join a virtual workshop led by local studio ArtFlock to create a mixed-media art piece.

Participants will receive a kit containing all materials needed, including paint, brushes, canvas and cutouts of buildings.

Duration: Two hours

Price: $40

Info: Monster Day Tours' website

2. Watch an interactive magic show

Magician Sng Ming Da performs Beyond the Magic, an interactive show that the audience can take part in even from across the screen. PHOTO: SNG MING DA

Be enthralled by magician Sng Ming Da. Beyond The Magic is an up-close, interactive show that online audiences can participate in. Prepare a pack of cards to take part.

Horror movie fans may prefer Shadows In The Dark, a magic show with a spooky twist that involves ghost stories brought alive by old photographs and even a creepy doll.

Duration: 45 to 60 minutes

Price: From $25

Info: Beyond the Magic's Airbnb website and Shadows in the Dark's Airbnb website

3. Whip up Indian curry

Mr Dhruv Shanker starts as early as 6am to cater to guests in North America. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LAURYN ISHAK

Cook curry with "Mad Onion Slicer" Dhruv Shanker, who will show you how to whip up dishes such as South Indian chicken korma with cashew pulao.

The menu changes regularly and there are options for vegetarian and vegan guests.

If you do not have all the ingredients, Mr Shanker will suggest substitutes.

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $40

Info: Airbnb website

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