Virtual tours, workshops, tastings, and cooking classes are now stand-ins for food and travel experiences. Here are 7 we recommend.

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  • Like many other things in the age of the coronavirus, food and travel experiences such as wine tastings and cooking classes have moved online. 
  • You can't just provide a Zoom link and call it a day. Translating physical experiences into successful virtual ones takes a lot of planning. 
  • Businesses must consider how to keep participants active and engaged, provide any necessary supplies, and work around the technical difficulties of a digital platform. 
  • See also: 18 virtual wine tastings hosted by vineyards, experts, and winemakers from around the world

In a few swift moves that have become all too familiar during this pandemic, I opened my laptop, adjusted the screen so the camera was pointing at my face, and clicked a Zoom link. Class was about to begin. 

A couple of months ago, I tuned into a live plant care workshop hosted by The Sill. Associate travel editor Hannah Freedman recently joined a digital tango lesson and a Moroccon cooking class via Airbnb Experiences, while our director of commerce Adam Burakowski went a slightly less conventional route by using that same platform to take a video tour of Prague that followed the journey of an 18th-century plague doctor.

They're just a few of the many different virtual sessions trying to make up for the real thing in the age of the coronavirus.

Food, drink, and travel experience providers have a special challenge these days — how do you show your product in action when touching, sharing, moving, and gathering are at the core of fully understanding it? The answer, as it's been for school lessons, work meetings, and workouts, is in an online room.

If you want to attend a cooking class, a flower arranging workshop, or even a wine tasting, it'll most likely take place on Zoom, the video conferencing platform that has grown explosively from 10 million daily participants (December 2019) to 300 million (April 2020). That's where my indoor gardening lesson took place, and it proved to be an effective showcase for The Sill's interactive presentation on how plants use light. But, the transition to Zoom (or Google Meet or Instagram or YouTube) isn't exactly easy.

  • What separates the good food and travel virtual experiences from the bad
  • Should you try a virtual experience?
  • Here are 7 cool virtual food and travel experiences we recommend

What separates the good food and travel virtual experiences from the bad

Knowing that the gap between physical and virtual is a difficult one to bridge, and that they're competing with all the other activities you can do online, businesses are being especially careful to make these new food and travel experiences worth it, often starting with the question, "Why?" 

Theo Rutherford, a sommelier and wine educator at Josh Cellars, asked Insider, "Why would someone take the time to log into this specific tasting? Though we are stuck at home, that doesn't mean that people are going to join with a plethora of options out there." 

Josh Cellars, which has hosted experiences like a seminar on how to taste like a sommelier and a food and wine pairing experience with a new Cabernet Sauvignon, aims to create virtual moments that are interactive, educational, and fun.  Rutherford said the company wants to "give the viewer something to look forward to" in times of ongoing stress and change. 

At CocuSocial, a company that usually offers group cooking and tasting classes in unique locations, employees thought about the distinction between its lessons and other food content on the internet. Cofounder Billy Guan said that the new classes had to be personalized, interactive, and hands-on in order to separate them from ordinary, static cooking videos and recipes.

That's why in its Master Series class, CocuSocial offers the unique opportunity to work closely with Michelin-starred, James Beard award-winning, and celebrity chefs. This kind of exclusive access to experts helps the brand set itself apart from competitors. 

Virtual experiences need to have an element of interactivity if a brand hopes to succeed in the digital space. 

Many of the businesses I spoke to said they purposely make their online experiences 45 minutes to one hour long, maximum, to account for short attention spans. 

And within that 45-minute-to-one-hour window, a host can't assume that the participants are actively watching their screens and absorbing the information. Icebreaker activities and live Q&A sessions are common tactics used to keep virtual participants engaged. 

"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," said Janiene Ullrich, a vice president at The Family Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola Winery's e-commerce site.

"After some time each host develops a different set of cues to identify and respond to in order to keep everyone feeling engaged, as well as elaborated descriptions to convey a sense of our environment and culture." 

There are lots of new challenges to overcome, namely navigating technical difficulties and getting necessary supplies to participants around the country. 

Ullrich said, "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."

However, as her team quickly discovered — and as you may have experienced in various virtual meetings or happy hours — most people are fairly forgiving with technical glitches, as long as there's empathy on both sides. 

Meanwhile, setting up participants for success beyond the screen is often done through two routes: the company either provides a list of everything the participant will need to buy or prepare in advance, or it ships the supplies directly to them. 

CocuSocial provides participants with detailed grocery and equipment checklists, as well as instruction outlines, while Josh Cellars encourages viewers to buy its wine via online delivery apps like Drizly so they can follow along during a tasting. 

Flower delivery service 1-800-Flowers has been hosting highly successful live floral arranging workshops in collaboration with Alice's Table. Back in April, the first 3,000 spots sold out within days, and a rep told me that ticket sales had to be temporarily shut down so the brand's team could re-up on supplies. 

The barrier to entry for this particular series of workshops is low because participants just need a pair of floral clippers and a water source. 1-800-Flowers sends them farm-fresh flowers, a stylish vase, and flower care instructions one or two days before the class. Feedback about the flower quality has been positive, and reviewers love that they're sent enough flowers to make a second arrangement. 

Should you try a virtual experience?

Here are some things to keep in mind before you sign up for a virtual experience like a cooking class, wine tasting, or plant workshop: 

  • Convenience and time: Do you have the necessary equipment and an hour or two to dedicate to the activity? Does the company provide supplies in advance, or do you need to prepare them yourself? 
  • Comfort level: How comfortable are you engaging with people online? Virtual classes may require talking to and interacting with the instructor and other participants. If you're not comfortable turning on your camera, can you participate in alternative ways?
  • What is it you want to gain: Is it a new skill or opportunity to try something you've always wanted to? Are you hoping to create new memories and spend time with loved ones you cannot physically see right now? 

Whether or not you choose to try a virtual experience, it's likely that they will be around for a long time, even after the pandemic. They've proven to be a sustainable way for businesses to stay engaged with customers and for participants to connect with their own loved ones. 

Jeffrey C. LeFrancois, executive director of the Meatpacking District Management Association, which has been holding a variety of events to promote the Meatpacking District in New York City, sees the virtual experience trend as the new normal: "When this pandemic is safely behind us, it's clear digital will have an ongoing foothold in all of our programming," he said. " Zoom meetings aren't going to just stop when we can meet in person again."

Here are 7 cool virtual food and travel experiences we recommend

  • Online Plant Workshops: Receive tips from plant experts on everything from watering to light. $10/person from The Sill. 
  • Virtual Wine Tastings at Home: Hear from winemakers about tasting notes, the winemaking process, favorite pairings, and more. Upcoming special guests include singer Mary J. Blige. Free to participate from Wine.com. Corresponding wine must be purchased separately. 
  • Tokyo Online: Green Teatime in Japan: Learn about tea brewing in Japanese culture, hidden tea spots, tea tips, and tea history. $13.64/person from TripAdvisor. 
  • Cook Mexican Street Tacos with a Pro Chef: Prepare a traditional red salsa, taco filling, and flour tortillas from a Mexico City-based chef. $24/person from Airbnb Experiences. 
  • Floral Arranging Workshops: Create beautiful and lush seasonal arrangements with fresh flowers. $65/person from 1-800-Flowers. 
  • Meet the Woolly Sheep & Lambs on My Farm: Take a tour of a farm in the New Zealand countryside. You'll also learn about sheep farming and wool processing. $15/person from Airbnb Experiences. 
  • Spiced Wines of the Past with an Archaeologist: Get a history lesson in wine, then make your own spiced red and white wine at home. $17/person from Airbnb Experiences. 

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