Next Normal: Why Hybrid Experiences in Tourism & Culture are Here to Stay

By Miriam Kugel

Over the past year, the ways we experience spaces and places have changed. With the reduction of physical tourism, leisure, and cultural activities during the pandemic, more and more visitors have turned to augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) to satisfy their wanderlust and experience culture and travel from the comfort of their homes. 

For many providers, the pandemic was a painful realization of just how far behind they were in their digital transformation journey. Many were left unable to realize fully digital visitor experiences. They lacked the required processes and systems to quickly scale up digital experiences and the internal talent and governance structures to pivot to virtual tourism. 

The providers who successfully launched virtual and digital cultural and travel experiences initially thought they would only be in operation for a short time.

However, close to 18 months later, with COVID-19 still impacting our lives, the sector has realized the benefits and perhaps even sheer necessity of maintaining and further scaling their digital solutions. While people will eventually return to physical tourism and cultural activities, the rise of virtual and augmented reality experiences has made seeing the world much more accessible to those who would otherwise not be able to travel. The next step is to offer a hybrid of virtual and physical experiences.  

During the pandemic, consumers and visitors alike have become even more accustomed to seamless digital experiences, whether they watched their favourite Opera or concert streamed live or signed up for digital tracing apps and vaccination passes. 

While all of us are longing to get out into the world again to travel and take part in different cultural activities, hybrid experiences that include physical, digital, and virtual elements have provided the most engaging visitor experience overall. Any cultural or tourism experience provider must now realize that digital is here to stay.

Digital experts in the industry even go as far as to predict that any tourism and culture provider currently not implementing hybrid experiences may lose relevancy and visitor numbers in the future.

Anne Hoffmann, Head of Digital at Les 2 Musées de la Ville Luxembourg, whose focus lies in creating digital visitor experiences to convey cultural heritage and history through the implementation of new technologies, says: “In my opinion, museums and cultural institutions have almost to reinvent themselves radically to stay relevant in this ever-changing, fast-paced, increasingly-demanding environment. The pandemic has shown us that we should work even harder on becoming a place – both physical and digital – where meaningful visitor experiences and interactions are created, pre-, during, and after visiting. Online and offline experiences need to go hand-in-hand to continue stimulating not only our existing audience but also to attract and target new audience groups.”

“While visitors do not want to miss the convenience that comes with a purely digital experience, such as no waiting times, better online booking options and the like, they are also hungry to go back to normal life. Despite the challenges around staffing, technology, implementation, and budgets, hybrid experiences will assure cultural institutions’ future relevancy.”

Who is leading in hybrid already?

The best hybrid and virtual visitor experiences out there today include:

Dubai Expo 2020 – The largest hybrid exhibition experience the world has ever seen 

The Dubai Expo 2020 will run on a hybrid model, offering both physical and virtual experiences, with millions expected to attend the Virtual Expo. Because the pandemic has impacted the potential in-person audience, Expo organizers have worked to refine the virtual offering to complement the physical event. The Virtual Expo will act as a sneak peek and reach audiences who are unable to attend, widening the reach of the Expo both digitally and physically. Every visitor’s experience, whether digital or physical, needs to be special and using tomorrow’s technology to excite and inspire, Expo 2020 aims to create entirely new types of experiences which will be a first for a World Expo. 

Disney – The fun continues virtually 

Disney was an early adopter of the power of digital, using technology to create a frictionless experience with the introduction of FastPass, which allows visitors to reduce queue time or jump queues altogether. 

Since the pandemic forced many theme parks to close their doors, Disney has tried to continue the fun virtually. Users can virtually experience popular rides, see the parks, recreate the park’s famous food recipes, and even download Pixar-themed video call backgrounds on the Disney Magic Moments website. The experience includes the famous “It’s a Small World” ride, and to make the experience feel more real, Disney reminds users to ‘keep your hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the boat’. 

Another public YouTube Channel called “Virtual Disney World” has offered virtual reality rides using 360-degree videos since 2016. The videos are compatible with a virtual reality headset or a smartphone with a headset. To date, the channel has garnered more than 46,000 subscribers and has had upwards of eight million views.

Lëtzebuerg City Museum

From interactive armchairs in 1996 to robots and talking 3D portraits to a complete museum app that works in three languages today: The Lëtzebuerg City Museum has always seen itself as a pioneer in integrating new technologies to create individual and exciting Museum visits both on-site and off-site. A “digital guest book” is the latest addition to hybrid experiences that allows the physical visitors to leave comments, drawn or written, which will then be projected on the wall and also displayed in the outhouse version of the mobile app. 3D Scans of all exhibits, including temporary displays, lets you stroll through the Museum at any time, creating an immersive experience whether in person or from home.

Balqees Fathi Album Launch – Up close and virtual with your favourite artist

The Emirati singer, Balqees Fathi, launched her latest album with the help of the “eve virtual” platform. The virtual hosting platform launched in July 2020 and is capable of simulating a live 3D virtual event environment. The singer was able to host more than 650,000 fans who interacted with the artist and could even make their avatars dance. The attendees were able to meet others on the platform and enjoyed an exclusive experience with Balqees when she surprised a few fans with video calls.

Tour Tokyo – Japanese digital delights

Tourists are offered the chance to experience a three-minute 360-degree video tour of Tokyo. This VR experience allows tourists to head across the Shibuya crossing, meet a robot, have a go on a claw machine, and even ride in a Tuk Tuk; essential Japanese travel highlights. Created by the Japan National Tourism Organization, visitors can engage with the experience using a VR headset or view it in 2D, which still offers an immersive experience.

Design impactful hybrid experiences

When organizations treat digital as an alternative or parallel layer to the physical experience, they run the risk of delivering a fragmented experience that doesn’t allow for smooth handoffs between the two streams nor offers additional opportunities to create visitor engagement.

When integrated effectively, physical and digital visitor experiences can reduce effort and friction and create a more enriching and immersive experience. When digital elements are seamlessly embedded into predominantly physical experiences, opportunities to create brand new “moments that matter” emerge through boosting one or several critical experience elements:

Increasing the sensory appeal of the experience

The “Imagine Van Gogh” exhibition has created an immersive experience where visitors can walk through massive Van Gogh artworks. The experience designers employed advanced techniques of multi-projection and immersive audio to add emotional depth to each image, allowing us to live and feel the artist’s creative energy.

Raising the stakes by adding gamified layers to the physical experience

Museums or travel providers have an opportunity to add Pokémon-Go style seek and find activities to their physical experiences to engage different – younger – visitor profiles and add additional appeal to the experience.

Reimagining endings through greater reach into people’s homes

Through the adoption of digital tools, experience endings can also become extended beyond the moment a visitor is leaving the physical space to create a stronger connection and greater brand loyalty. 

Likewise, for predominantly digital experiences such as virtual events, experience designers need to consider bringing the sensory appeal of physical experiences into the digital sphere. For this to happen successfully, it helps to first assess your visitor personas and their motivations and drivers. 

We have seen great examples throughout the pandemic where companies have attempted to create physical experience artefacts. Take, for example, the Qualtrics partner summit, where organizers sent physical goody bags to all attendees, sharing a piece of the local cuisine in the form of a cookbook and an apron, and also including the event lanyard as well as other giveaways and small souvenirs to mimic the physical experience. 

The future of visitor experiences and travel is hybrid and here to stay, and experience designers have an opportunity to use digital tools to create additional elevation, insight, pride, and connections as part of the reimagined visitor experience.