Case Study: Austin Ghost Tours offers a virtual walking tour
How does an in-person ghost tour make the transition to a virtual event? Will there be a diminishing sense of enjoyment to attendees? In this article, we’ll talk about Jeanine Plummer’s concerns and eventual leap to an online experience. Her virtual walking tour of Austin's scariest stories takes place through her eponymously named Austin Ghost Tours based in Texas. We'll look at the challenges she faced, the reaction of attendees, and Jeanine's goals for the future.
Austin Ghost Tours delights customers with eerie stories based on the deaths, murders, and circumstances of Austin’s early history. Incorporated in 1839, many of the city’s buildings built in that century dot the downtown area today around the thriving 6th Street where patrons can hop from the hundreds of music venues to restaurants to cocktail lounges. With the perfect setting, Jeanine began offering her tours in 1995 to Autin’s soaring population and tourists visiting the “music capital of the world”.
Jeanine’s decision to try online tours was driven by the closure of her business due to Austin’s “shelter in place” rules. Even prior to the ruling, concerns around COVID-19 had already affected ticket sales. With long-time employee, John Maverick, Jeanine began planning the technical aspects of a virtual tour. It was that first tour two weeks ago that the staff from ThunderTix were rewarded with Jeanine’s offer of VIP sneak peeks into the buildings of their regular tour.
Getting the word out
Using the built-in mass email tool powered by ThunderTix, Austin Ghost Tours sent out a promotional email to their client base just two hours before the kick-off of the first virtual Austin Ghost Tours event. Even with such short notice, the promotional email resulted in 8 new attendees! The virtual walking tour began with a total of 17 registrants all of whom had signed up specifically for the virtual event. In other words, these were not postponed or canceled tours but rather an entirely new audience looking for a different form of entertainment.
Provided that your audience has gone virtual, you should certainly consider how you can expand your outreach to this larger market. Reach out to customers that you may have removed from campaigns based on their distance to your venue or promote your event on platforms that may extend beyond your core audience: invite family on Facebook, peers on Linkedin, and friends on Instagram to inform them about your upcoming show. Austin Ghost Tours has already reaped the benefits of its increased customer base and has had sign-ups from audience members based in the UK.
Similar to your broadened audience, you also have a bigger stage. For Austin Ghost Tours’ second virtual showing of Texas’ hauntings, we were brought beyond the borders of downtown to meet Pracilla, the Protectress of the Millett Opera House, and the nine ghosts of Travis County Jail. Consider how your extended virtual stage may overlap with another venue and ask how you may be able to partner in order to co-promote your content. The world is your oyster!
Pre-event setup for virtual walking tour
Jeanine and John decided on Zoom as their delivery method for the virtual walking tour. So, as patrons purchased tickets, the automated confirmation email from ThunderTix included a Zoom Video Communications link from which they would enter the virtual event. The audience does not have to pay for Zoom or download it to be able to access the virtual performance through the web application, and the low cost of Zoom makes it a perfect solution for small tours and virtual events.
For Austin Ghost Tours, the most challenging barrier to getting attendees virtually strolling down Austin’s famed 6th Street with a drink in hand revolved around the technical setup. John described Zoom as an intuitive tool, but at the same time, he suggested that newcomers to the medium make full use of Zoom’s online tutorials. Since the youngest of generations is completely tech-savvy, he suggested you look to teens in your circle as a valuable resource to help get your first virtual event scheduled.
As a more tech-savvy team member, John was able to collect photos from news articles, Google Images, Yelp, and Zillow for both images throughout downtown’s 6th Street and even within the buildings. He used these as the backdrop for his tours as we wound our way virtually through the streets of Austin.
For your first virtual event, John instructs guides to set up virtual backgrounds by changing your display settings under Zoom > Settings. Any computer with a webcam can host a similar virtual walking tour but Jeanine warns us to be wary of the quality of content. While working backstage to perfect virtual tours with her less tech-savvy team members, Jeanine knows she must rely on only those guides having fast internet, good lighting, and high-quality audio, and video webcams.
John advised power cycling your router, clearing your browser’s cache, and restarting your computer an hour before showtime to ensure the best internet connection possible. Despite the technical challenges for this first-time virtual tour, Jeanine and John ensured we didn’t experience a single glitch even while witnessing the ghostly cold casualties of the 1918 Spanish flu!
Preparation and rehearsal for your virtual tour
Rehearsing is the key to any well-run performance, and the same adherence to this rule applies to virtual events. In your rehearsal, it is very important to test that your video streams smoothly. Go over the controls such as muting members or turning off video sharing from audience members, or virtual event attendees. If you want to allow your audience access to chat either during (carefully!) or after the tour, give those controls a try with your test audience. If you are sharing audio with your co-host, test that, too.
John recommends using headphones with a built-in mic to keep background noise out and hear your audience better. Treat the virtual event like a regular performance: wear what you normally would, and find a quiet place to rehearse and then perform. Of course, at an in-person tour, you likely wouldn’t run into some of the challenges you might while broadcasting from your own home, so consider how you can minimize at-home distractions. Mute your phone, make arrangements for keeping your dog quiet and in another room, and turn off TVs. John also warned performers not to wear hats that can leave faces shadowed and difficult to see.
Practice with friends over a virtual happy hour so you get accustomed to silences at times when you would normally receive reactions from your audience like laughs or questions. This can almost seem like yelling into an empty room, so steel yourself for the lack of feedback.
The virtual walking tour experience: A customer perspective
As an attendee on the premiere of their virtual walking ghost tour, I have to say that their investment in the technical aspects and rehearsal paid off. John’s demeanor was welcoming upon our arrival with the display of the Austin Ghost Tours logo behind him. It was my first experience on a virtual ghost tour, and he broke the ice by holding up his own wine glass while inviting us to grab our favorite beverage to gird ourselves for learning about Austin’s most bone-chilling inhabitants.
Zoom’s chat feature was turned on, and a few attendees added comments that felt very similar to an in-person tour where you begin to introduce yourself to your fellow guests. Periodic comments would appear much like a regular tour, and I found the experience with the chat as a nice, yet unexpected, addition.
John did an excellent job of storytelling, and it is apparent that he’s a fan of both history and of Austin itself. He spoke with authority about his subject, and he smoothly delivered stories of the death of one of his youngest subjects, Mary, who inhabits local bar and hamburger stop, Casino El Camino. We saw the remains of one of Austin’s most feared residents, Emily, and John even took us into the kitchen of a haunted hostel.
The experience was fantastic, and it’s apparent that Jeanine and John will have a remarkable following with their tours! I’ll look forward to the end of the “shelter in place” rules to finally visit Casino el Camino and have a glimpse of Mary’s ghost in person.
How to price your virtual walking tour
To Jeanine, the virtual tour was never about the money as much as it is about bringing a bit of peace and entertainment to her viewers during such hectic times. If not for the benefit of your customer then for the benefit of your attendance, a competitive price should be considered when reaching out to onboard patrons. Between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, online entertainment is prevalent. Austin Ghost Tours has reduced the price of their virtual tour from $3.99 to $2.99 in an effort to bring affordable, live, quality content to their customers. With ThunderTix’s new “pay what you can” ticket type option, you can set a minimum price for virtual entry while leaving the door open for generous patrons to give more.
John was delighted by his post-performance tips from very satisfied customers. He had the idea to screenshot his Cash App and Venmo QR codes and usernames so that he could use them as a virtual background when signing off. This is a great way to open your wallet to a virtual standing ovation (for tips) from your stellar performance.
Learn and improve your tours with feedback and experience
In the future, to keep the story rolling, Jeanine plans to set aside the Zoom group chat until the end of the tour where they can answer audience questions and, though it was enjoyable to drink with our guide, they intend to keep it professional and draw less attention to the virtual happy hour.
Further, Austin Ghost Tours plans to continue broadening its market and its stage. Attendees have already made way from across the pond and Jeanine has made mention of a partnership with Rome Ghost Tours on the horizon.
Jeannine had been planning to get virtual Austin Ghost Tours off the ground for some time, and she’s taking advantage of the “shelter in place” rules as a way to finally shake things out. With such positive feedback, she has already begun looking into webinars and chat platforms that will enable her to host a larger audience and she intends to continue the virtual walking tour format after the end of our stay-at-home orders. Stay tuned as Austin Ghost Tours bands together with their global network of ghost loving peers to bring you the spookiest of stories! Join in on the ominous adventures here!