For me—and many others—it’s been an autumn of traveling virtually.
Did anyone even use the term “Virtual Travel” or “Virtual Experience” before this year??
Much of my life the past 30 years has involved “real” travel. This time last year Charley and I were in Provence, enjoying a short stay at our second home in Bonnieux after our Christmas tour in Salzburg, Munich and Colmar. We flew back to the USA on December 21, and I left on a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand on December 26.
After that trip-of-a-lifetime with my sister and daughter, I expected to spend much of 2020 in Europe, a combination of personal travel, research travel for future trips, and 14 European Experience trips in England, France and Italy. (In fact, Charley and I had planned to be there now, enjoying the holiday season in Bonnieux!)
On February 29 and March 1 we were at the Atlanta Travel & Adventure Show, along with our daughter Kelly and friend Susan, hundreds of other exhibitors, and thousands of potential travelers. There was some rumbling about something called the “coronavirus” in China and northern Italy, but many people that weekend were seriously pursuing possibilities for an international trip later in the year.
The research trip I had planned in the Loire Valley and the big tourism meeting I was to attend in Nantes were still “on” when I flew to Provence on March 4. So much changed in the 12 days I was in Bonnieux! The Loire Valley trip and the tourism meeting were cancelled soon after I arrived, and a week later President Macron announced that a strict lockdown would begin in France on March 17. I changed my flights and flew home on March 17, returning to a different world in the USA.
Little did I dream when I locked the door of our little home in Bonnieux early on the morning of March 17 that I wouldn’t be back again in 2020 or that I’d sleep in my own bed in Knoxville every night for the rest of the year! This is probably the longest consecutive time I’ve been “at home” for my entire adult life.
But as this unexpected, unimaginable year unfolded, there was lemonade to be made from these lemons. Yes, we cancelled all 14 of our 2020 European Experiences tours, wore our masks and socially distanced, stayed away from restaurants, and connected with family and friends primarily through phone calls, email and social media. But we made lemonade as we found new ways of communicating, traveling, and learning. Had you heard of a “webinar” or “Zoom” before 2020? (I know I hadn’t!)
When the last of our 2020 tours became clearly impossible, we invested in a Zoom plan and moved forward to create Virtual European Experiences, our own webinars hosted on Zoom. We wanted to find a way for people to have a type of travel experience from home during this time when travel to Europe is impossible. We hoped these programs would help people learn more about an area or culture, offer a look at a place they might want to visit in the future, or bring back memories of a special place they had already enjoyed.
Since late September, European Experiences has hosted 12 Virtual European Experiences, with a total of almost 1,000 registrations. Over 600 of the people who registered attended the session “live,” and everyone who couldn’t attend live because of their schedule or their time zone received a link to the edited recording a few days later.
Most of our programs (now one hour) have been presented by our co-leaders, partners and friends in Europe. I open every session and moderate the Question and Answer session. I’ve been involved in presenting four programs, with the Q&A moderated by our daughter Kelly or by my Cotswolds co-leader Susan. Charley and I also had a more interactive Zoom meeting with a large group of our Travelers Circle members (alumni travelers).
Most of our virtual programs have focused on a special topic related to one of the areas where we host our trips. Jennifer Dugdale in Aix-en-Provence led programs for us on French food customs and French cheese. From Italy, Arianna Cini and Francesco Anichini of Vallone di Cecione led a program on the wine harvest in Chianti. Arianna also did a program for us on the olive harvest and other November activities in Tuscany, and Tommaso Perrone introduced us to Puglia. With Carol Jackson, we learned about a variety of famous and celebrated people who have lived in Chipping Campden. Our daughter Kelly Wood shared some of the tragic history of Alsace during World War II. I talked about my favorite gardens in the Cotswolds and gave an overview of our Luberon Experience week in Provence.
Most recently we had two holiday-related programs, one led by Jennifer and me on Holiday Traditions in Provence. And last week I presented our last program of 2020, “The Spirit of Christmas: Markets and more in Bavaria, the Salzkammergut & Alsace.”
For a little holiday spirit– and to see for yourself what a Virtual European Experience is like– here are the recordings for those programs. Each program is about one hour.
Involving Local Friends and Partners in Europe
Relationships, genuine friendships, and supportive partnerships with local people have always been an important element of our European Experiences trips, so we wanted tour partners in Europe to play a key role in these virtual programs too. Our virtual experiences have provided a meaningful opportunity during this time for them to engage with travelers and share their stories, and also to receive some financial support.
For people in tourism—like so many in other industries—the pandemic has been devastating. Some travel companies have a required fee to participate in their online programs, but we decided to use a voluntary donation model, with 100% of any donations going to our presenters. The support of our audiences has been so gratifying and very much appreciated. We’ve received 366 donations, more than we ever dreamed. On behalf of our presenters, thanks so much to everyone who has made a donation!
For me, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to work with our partners from afar, as we plan for and practice our sessions. I really enjoy connecting with my European friends and colleagues through Zoom and working on this project together. It’s been a very different experience than our usual interactions through email. I remember one recent day where I had four different Zoom meetings with colleagues in other countries!
I’ve also really enjoyed the positive connection with travelers around the world during this extended time I’m at home. Some of my contacts are with people who have traveled with us before; others are with people who may join us in the future. And some are with people who just love travel and learning about other places and cultures.
Personal Experiences and Passions
The role of a trip leader on a small group tour is definitely personal. Our groups are usually together for a full week, spending most of every day together and sharing most of our meals. We get to know our travelers well… so many have become good friends. We love spending time with people, sharing our special places, bringing our groups together with our local friends, and organizing unique experiences.
None of us involved in our Virtual European Experiences are professional public speakers, actors, or video experts. We all want our virtual programs to be authentic and genuine, as each leader shares their personal experiences, perspectives, photos and videos. We want our audiences to get to know us. For those who haven’t been with us before, these programs offer a valuable, personal interaction that we normally haven’t had with people before they join us for a first trip.
We’ve found our audiences enjoy the spontaneity of a live program, whether it’s the interchange between a few of us, hearing our personal travel stories, or hearing Carol’s husband Geoffrey in the background during her program from the Cotswolds.
We’re offering programs that enable us to share our passions… for these regions, for history, for cultural differences, for food. This intimate “live” format enables us to convey these in a very personal way, and people seem to appreciate it.
New Experiences for All of Us
Involvement in online webinars is a new experience for all of us, presenters and participants alike. Although we’ve definitely improved since our first program back in September, those of us presenting aren’t video professionals. The technology is more complicated than it might seem from the other side, and this has to be a “low-budget” operation these days. We don’t have any paid helpers and we haven’t purchased any expensive equipment. We’ve learned that it’s important to have a robust internet connection, a reliable computer that can run all the different elements of the program, and a few special devices to enhance the program—which fortunately can be purchased with a small budget.
Some of our partners have used PowerPoint for the first time and learned to edit videos.
And several of our participants have used Zoom for the first time and even started using Venmo to make donations—very safe and easy, by the way!
My office is now a type of studio, with a special ring light, a fancy microphone, a new camera, even a “blue screen” if I want to use a “virtual background.” (The typical “green screen” doesn’t work with my hair color.)
It’s a strange experience to sit alone in my office looking at my computer monitor, knowing I’m on camera “live” with 75 people around the world, while also being recorded so another 50+ people can watch the program later. This is definitely not what I expected to do when I started a travel company 15 years ago… not even something I expected to do just a year ago!
I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, so feedback from our audience is very valuable to us. We learned our audience likes lots of photos, video when possible, involvement of people in Europe, and not too many words on the slides.
We do wish we had more video! Of course, we didn’t anticipate last year that we’d be doing these programs during a pandemic in 2020– so we didn’t focus on making videos during last year’s tours. On this year’s limited budget it’s hard to make videos now. Some of us are unable to travel to Europe now to make videos in the pandemic conditions… and it’s hard as well for our partners in Europe who have been impacted by strict lockdowns.
But overall, the response to our Virtual European Experiences has been overwhelmingly affirmative and supportive! We’ve appreciated all the positive survey comments, emails, notes, cards, and donations for our presenters. Here are just a few comments from our participants:
“I think you have done a fabulous job with all of your virtual presentations this year. Well done and thank you! This is the next best thing to actually being able to travel.” (Bobby and Michell from Louisiana)
“This was my first time using Zoom AND my first virtual seminar, but I will certainly be tuned in to watch all you offer next year.” (Carol from Virginia)
“I didn’t really know anything about Puglia so this was a nice introduction. I’m impressed with all the presenters who have put together very informative and enjoyable talks about their regions.” (Chris from Minnesota)
I continue to look forward to the Webinars and to your coming presentations on the tours you offer. Thank you so much for making this extra effort for we who are missing our travel adventures. (Cynthia from North Carolina)
“You’ve really created something special here, Kathy. One thing I have found about your webinars, I feel great the rest of the day. I’m thinking all day about wonderful memories and looking forward to future experiences. (Diane from California)
“We have so loved everything you have posted these last months. We sit and dream of our times with you and European Experiences. Thank you!” (Dennis and JoAnn from Florida)
And a note from Jennifer Dugdale, our new partner in Provence and one of our Virtual Experience leaders: “One reason I like being in the tour business is that it helps people live their lives to the fullest, so I am making a difference in someone’s well-being. It’s exciting this year that we’re able to do that virtually.”
Plans for Virtual European Experiences in 2021
After an autumn of traveling virtually, we’re now taking a break until January.
As this year wraps up, we’re still enjoying our big glass of 2020 “lemonade.” We’re continuing to offer European experiences, our audiences are enjoying and learning from our programs, we’re involving and helping our partners, and we’re finding new and effective ways to communicate and connect.
We’ll continue traveling virtually next year. We’re finalizing our schedule for Virtual European Experiences for January and February now and will communicate the details later this week. Our first program on January 7 will be led by husband and wife team Jim Nilsen and Magrit Baurecht Nilsen of Photography Travel Tours, fellow members of the Slow Travel Tours group. They’ll be presenting “Colors of Europe: Location & Tech Tips for Stunning Travel Photography,” a fun way to start the new year. (You will love Jim’s fabulous photos!) Other upcoming programs will focus on the Cotswolds, Alsace, Chianti, Provence, and Puglia. We’ll also have a special program related to European Travel and overviews of a few more of our trips.
Anyone is welcome to join us! Sign up here to join our mailing list and get the announcement for future programs or watch our Facebook page for details. Registration is required. If you can’t attend the “live” session, please do register as you’ll always get a link to the edited recording a few days later.
The news about the vaccine is certainly encouraging and will soon enable us to travel safely in Europe again. Although I can’t wait to be back in Europe with our groups, I know I want to continue offering and hosting Virtual European Experiences in the off-season. We have lots of great ideas for more programs! In the meantime, we’ll continue these virtual experiences until we can return to Europe later this year.
Traveling virtually has been a new experience for all of us! I want to thank everyone who has tuned in for our Virtual European Experiences, sent donations for our presenters, told their friends about our programs, and offered encouragement for this new project. Special thanks to Kelly, Jennifer, Arianna, Alessio, Francesco, Carol, and Tommaso for their involvement, enthusiasm, and creativity in developing their program(s). I also want to recognize our daughter Kelly Wood for her role in promoting our programs on Instagram, editing the videos, and offering guidance on the technology. And of course– a big thank you to Charley for his support behind the scenes!
The Wood family and our partners in Europe wish everyone a healthy and happy holiday season. We look forward to “real” travel again soon. Onward to 2021!
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Enjoy other blog posts about our experiences at home during the pandemic:
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy has now personally hosted over 130 Experience groups. She hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host a few trips with Kathy every year.
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30+ years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.