How often do you get to learn how to make homemade pasta from a certified Italian grandmother? Or make cocktails from a world-famous bartender? What about learning how to write a novel from a New York Times-bestselling author?
Before, these once-in-a-lifetime experiences meant you had to be in the right place at the right time—now, you can tap into virtual experiences from anywhere.
“Virtual experiences” encompass everything from Zoom happy hours with coworkers to special broadcasts of theatrical or musical events. And it’s a growing market, projected to reach $778 billion by 2030. Both established players like ticketing service Eventbrite and new companies like Hopin and Airmeet secured recent funding, making virtual experiences an up-and-coming industry.
The real winner for virtual experiences? It’s still Zoom. The videoconferencing company went public in 2018 with a stock price of $36 a share. It’s now worth over $300 (with its peak at over $500 in October 2020), with 350% growth year over year.
Over 300 million people use Zoom every day, with competitors Google Meet and Microsoft Teams not far behind. But with this increase in Zoom usage comes a new term popularized during the pandemic: “Zoom fatigue.”
Zoom fatigue stems from how our brains process video calls and the amount of focus required to pay attention while staring at a screen. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, told the BBC. “What I’m finding is, we’re all exhausted. It doesn’t matter whether we are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.”
If the idea of signing on to a happy hour after a long day of video calls sounds grueling, that’s because it is. But virtual experiences go way beyond the traditional happy hour. With cooking classes, magic shows, online learning, and interactive elements, most virtual experiences combine some sort of physical element, often shipped directly to your home, with the virtual to create something totally new.
Half of all Americans canceled summer vacation plans in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns, and with many countries still closed off to American travelers, 2021 will likely see similar trends.
Tourist destinations and other closed attractions now offer ways to visit them without leaving your home. Virtual experiences give a sense of travel even if you’re not going anywhere, whether it’s touring a museum virtually or offering a taste—sometimes literally—of a different culture.
“For an hour and a half the bartender and I chatted, he told jokes, we traded stories and watched each other’s reactions…I know it’s a bartender’s job to make everyone feel like their friend, but I felt like his friend, which meant I felt like my kitchen was a bar. The magic worked,” writes Jaya Saxena for Eater on trying a virtual mixology class.
For hosts, the challenge is to create an environment that doesn’t feel staged or stressful. Encouraging attendees to sit back, relax, and engage over Zoom is easier said than done. Many tour operators and other small businesses have struggled to pivot to online formats. “We’re accustomed to hosting people at our destinations where they are immersed in our curated environment. At first, the storytelling was awkward because we weren’t sharing the same space as our guests where we could easily point to our different displays and memorabilia,” Janiene Ullrich, VP at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, told Business Insider. “Going virtual meant having to let go of a certain level of control, especially when it comes to technology where there’s inconsistent video and audio quality and guests have different comfort levels with using Zoom.”
Many hosts are creative entrepreneurs or small businesses themselves without the power of scale. But with popular aggregators like Viator and Airbnb pivoting to showcasing online experiences, new platforms have emerged for the growing virtual experience businesses.
Airbnb’s online experiences have become so popular that several hosts have become overnight successes, making as much as $20,000 in one month. “Human connection is at the core of what we do,” Catherine Powell, head of Airbnb Experiences, said in a press release. “With so many people needing to stay indoors to protect their health, we want to provide an opportunity for our hosts to connect with our global community of guests in the only way possible right now, online.”
Another winner in the virtual experiences market? Celebrity-fueled “edutainment” company MasterClass, which offers online courses in a wide range of topics: from interior decorating to filmmaking. The $800 million company promises a window into what a successful person’s life looks like.
Online classes aren’t exactly new. What’s different about online experiences like MasterClass is that they’re highly curated and celebrity-driven, more akin to motivational speaking than the videos on mastering accounting or DSLR cameras that you’d find on YouTube. As online and remote learning become more mainstream, virtual experiences become another marketing or product channel for your business. Consider offering webinars or virtual events of your own.
“One of the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have is a sea change in the way that education is delivered in the future,” reads a report from Harvard Business School. “Physical proximity, hands-on experience, and social engagement offered through current education models will be more seriously weighed against the benefits of personalization, flexibility, ease of access, and, as technology improves, the delivery of higher quality products through massively scalable digital channels.”
Virtual experiences won’t go away anytime soon: they fulfill the promise of technology designed to connect us across long distances. Even when we’re able to travel, dine out, and attend in-person lectures and coursework again, our lives have permanently gone online.