Skift Take

Self-guided audio tours that spit out generic facts about attractions or points of interest in a destination are at risk of becoming obsolete if they don't put in the work to differentiate through an emotive, storytelling experience. Why? Because generative AI is coming.

Creators of self-guided audio tours, targeting independent travelers who prefer to explore on their own steam without paying private tour prices, are upping their unique storytelling game to differentiate beyond generic facts spat out in a destination.

Anything that ChatGPT will eventually do, these self-guided tours have to do better.

ChatGPT as a generative artificial intelligence language tool cannot pinpoint global positioning systems (GPS), but no doubt it will eventually be developed into one that does.  The changing expectations of travelers and the rise of new technologies such as generative AI amplify the need for businesses to tap into the power of the human experience through emotion to set themselves apart.

Essentially, unique tours that are theme-led and offer a unique perspectives are most effective in creating an audience prepared to pay for the experience, according to VoiceMap founder and CEO Iain Manley.

In February 2023 VoiceMap, a platform that offers GPS self-guided audio tours created by its destination experts and storytellers, reached a milestone of 1,000 tours. Manley told Skift that while it hasn’t been the quickest journey over the past 10 years, it has seen “consistent organic growth of up to 300 percent” in recent years, baring a drop in 2020 during the pandemic. Manley declined to share exact audience figures with Skift.

Crafted Storytelling and Technical Handholding

For VoiceMap, he said, it’s always been about crafting high-quality, immersive experiences through the unique stories and perspectives of its 563 local guides, across 350 destinations and 62 countries. And the platform has ensured its tech tools and features to produce and upload the tours have remained easy to use.

Manley noted the importance of this, since the offering is used by tours and activities operators and experts who have never had to produce a tour digitally before. He referenced Detour, a former market leader in audio tours founded by Andrew Mason, the former CEO of Groupon. It was said to be cost heavy, using mainly documentary filmmakers and reality television producers to produce its tours, and technically difficult to use. The company was acquired by Bose, before eventually being shuttered.

And yet, VoiceMap still remains quite a process.

Frank Bures, an author of four VoiceMap tours, told Skift he almost quit before he got started.

“The first time I did it, I could not believe how long it was taking and how much work it was, and I was like, I’m never gonna do this again. By the time I got it finished, I was really happy with it.”

He added that the VoiceMap support team were “hands on” and the testing tool to walk the tour before writing the script ensured it was on point. Bures outlined how he mapped the GPS route for his tour centered on the era-defining musician Prince. It features biographical details, the effect Prince had on the city, and Bures’ memories. It’s also not a mainstream attraction, which is a strategic consideration, he said.

“In almost every module there’s some mini-narrative. That’s how people’s minds work. And it’s way more interesting than a bunch of facts that you can’t remember,” Bures said.

He references a small guitar shop in his tour in downtown Minneapolis, “In some sense this is where this all started in 1975. That building was the original site of the guitar shop, which was owned by Chuck Orr. Prince and his friends, Andre Anderson, later known as Andre Simone and Des Dickerson would hang out, jam on guitars and dream about what they could do and who they might become.”

As a self-employed freelancer, he said the disadvantages of VoiceMap compared to other publications is you only get money once the tour sells. But his tours have now turned into a passive stream of income.

“So over time, it’s worth it,” Bures added.

Manley said VoiceMap has specifically focused on technical handholding of its storytellers, while remaining scrappy in its overall approach to the business model. Ultimately, tour operators retain the copyright of their tours within the VoiceMap ecosystem which promotes it directly, across online travel agencies or lets creators share it independently, depending on the chosen subscription model.

Platform Disruption and Partnership Distribution

While self-guided audio tours are far from linear in approach or execution as the VoiceMap model shows, there are other players in the audio tours space to consider.

Clio Muse Tours operates in 32 cities globally, PocketGuideApp offers a point-to-point audio tour for popular attractions, while Vox City creates detailed audio city guides in some 40 cities.

Vox City managing director Andy Lawrence outlined to Skift how the company has evolved from guides wandering around with a transmitter and all guests with a receiver, to be more than just generic, factual soundbites of 60 to 120 seconds per GPS point of interest in a city guide.

Unlike VoiceMap, VoxCity produces and owns all its content independently.

“We are looking to create more theme-led, storytelling forms of itineraries, and discovery, whereas before it was perhaps a little bit more generic, located points of interest. The nice thing that we’ve always had through the app, and it remains that way today, is that everything is GPS triggered and can be downloaded, so you can run the whole thing offline.”

Examples of theme-led tours in London he said include a royal themed walking tour, alternative Harry Potter walking tour and a political history self-guided route.

Lawrence added that the popularity of these tours was also changing its distribution model to be more partnership focused. The company was looking to shift the hard-sell of Vox City App, which sees it visitors needing to pay before they can access anything, to a freemium model that would offer its users an introductory tour showcasing the expected value from the rest of the paid guides.

“It’s expanded our model beyond an online travel agency-based product, to being more strategic with our partnerships through a revenue share model.” Lawrence added the company was in talks with hotel brands and rail companies but could not disclose further details.

“If there’s upgrades to other products, again, our partners are included within that structure. So its been a real game changer for us in terms of distribution model.”

With the lightning-speed uptake of generative AI, programs developed to use the generative language tool to create in-destination and on demand itineraries are the expected next step. Travel companies already playing in this space need not shy away from it, but like VoiceMap and Vox City, instead need to evaluate how to bring in the emotive human layer of differentiation and rethink their distribution strategy.


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Tags: experiences, tours and activities

Photo credit: A mural of musician Prince in downtown Minneapolis. Source: Unsplash Javier Quiroga / Javier Quiroga, unsplash

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