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See the world from your armchair!

Friday 15 May 2020 10:59am

Otago alumnus Steve Wilson is doing all he can to keep his team of worldwide tour guides working by employing them as virtual guides in their home countries.

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From early March the warning signs were mounting that the tourism industry as we know it was about to be turned on its head. At the time Steve’s travel company was busy organising tours in Peru. Over the next few weeks, he had to work round the clock to get flights for travellers home and cancel or postpone many tour groups just as peak tourist season was kicking into gear.

With much of the world in the grips of the pandemic and billions of people in lockdown, he wondered what he could do to support his team. He started creating a new website that offered people the chance to travel with tour guides virtually via their computers or phones in their lounge rooms.

“I guess I got into fight mode, fighting for my company’s survival and managed to develop the Cooee website while putting my own company (Aspiring Adventures) into hibernation.

For his Peruvian tour guides there’s no such thing as a wage subsidy. They were all instantly out of work. “I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Steve says.

Then he thought that he could create a platform for one-to-one tour guiding around a location. So, continuing what his staff already did, in real-time.

“We’ve created this amazing project to support tour guides in this no man’s land that we’re currently in.”

All of his tour guides jumped on board and a newsletter was sent out to his mailing list, and then he realised that he could expand this beyond his own team. “We’re now in 14 countries around the world.

“We’ve created this amazing project to support tour guides in this no man’s land that we’re currently in.”

He says many of the bookings are coming from the tour guides themselves contacting previous customers, but they’re slowly getting more people learning about the new service and getting on board.

“It’s like having an instant pen pal and learning all about what life is like for the guides themselves and what they are passionate about in their hometown.

“I’ve also had high school teachers contacting me to say, ‘Wow this would be an amazing educational resource for students. Could we get on board for our classes?’”

After growing up on the Taieri, Steve studied Geology at Otago and found the thing that he enjoyed the most were the University field trips.

After travelling overseas, he thought he’d like to share the history, culture and geology of NZ with tourists by working as a guide. He then had some management roles in Queenstown and in 2009 he decided to start his own company.

His business partner Katy Shorthouse is an Australian who’s been living in Peru for many years. They started there and have been expanding their business into other locations, partly so they didn’t have their eggs all in one basket.

“I’d seen what had happened to Christchurch, Nepal, and other places when disaster struck, but this pandemic is global, so it didn’t matter what we did we were done for.

“I have a team of 11 guides, and so far, I haven’t laid off anyone, but it’s a real challenge.”

Like his guides Steve runs a virtual tour of Dunedin, with his smartphone, and is enjoying getting back out in the field, connecting one-to-one with travellers.

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All of his guides manage their own calendar, so they can choose when they’re available to work. Customers pay by credit card and then on the day and time they meet on Zoom and have their tour.

“It’s going really well, we’ve got some great guides on board, and we’re receiving incredible reviews from guests.”

Steve says that he plans to continue to offer these online travel experiences after normal world travel resumes as his guides could use Cooee to supplement their income between tours.

“It’s always going to be an option for those who can’t afford to travel, or those who have a disability and can’t travel. And for others who would like to get ideas for future travel adventures, or to reminisce on previous destinations that they’ve travelled to and loved,” Steve says.