While the coronavirus is impacting tourism in various ways, private tour companies in Williamsburg are trying to find ways to carry on.
“I mean its depressing obviously” said Angela Taverniti, general manager for Original Ghosts Tours of Williamsburg. “It’s hard not knowing what’s ahead.”
She said they typically hire 25 employees during the busy season which typically starts in March and runs through December — prior to the coronavirus, the ghost tour company had just finished a training class on March 11.
Due to the statewide ban on gatherings of 10 or more people and social distancing guidelines, the tours are canceled until further notice.
Most of the tour guides are in their 50s or 60s and in order to “break even” on a tour Taverniti said they need to have more than 10 people.
Now none of the tour guides are getting paid and Taverniti herself has filed for unemployment.
“This is our big time of year for school groups,” she said. “If the quarantine goes into the middle of June, we would have canceled 45,000 students in the past [couple] months.”
“I don’t know if there would be a recovery for us,” she added.
Taverniti also filed for small business loans.
“We obviously filed for stimulus money,” Taverniti said, adding she plans to use the funds for advertising and payroll expenses. “So when this quarter is lifted and hopefully people start traveling again…people will know how to find us.”
Another issue is canceling the tour bookings already paid for.
“People had booked ahead, and the app is not allowing us to refund people,” she said, adding the app is through a third party vendor called Peak Performance. “The app hasn’t paid us and we haven’t got a refund.”
While she loves the app, it’s hard for Taverniti to convey to customers the ghost tour doesn’t have their money, Peak Performance does.
“Waiting for app to pay us and handwriting checks thru the mail…it kinda just really sucks,” she added.
In the meantime, people can tune into to their Facebook page every Wednesday at 9 p.m. for quarantine ghost stories.
Lance Zaal, owner of Colonial Ghosts, said tour guide operations for his Williamsburg business are closed until May 1, but he expects that date will have to be extended.
The company started taking precautions early in March by only operating groups with less than 10 people but only a few weeks later had to stop tours altogether. Zaal said this is a particularly difficult time to stop tours because private tour companies make a lot of their business off school groups that come to the area.
“It’s been tough, but we’ll have to get through it,” he said.
In the meantime, the company has started to provide “interactive, decision-based adventures” through the app Junket, Zaal said.
“So Junket allows tour operators to remain open while they’re physically closed,” he said.
Through the app, participants can interact with their surroundings by going through a series of “decision points” which are locations at which a person makes a decision which will take them to a different location dependent on that decision.
Zaal said the app uses GPS technology to follow someone as they go through the adventure and when they approach a particular location, a recording will begin playing automatically that provides them informational and historical background.
While the app is granting a free 30-day trial for users, Zaal said, there will eventually be a subscription fee of $29 a month, of which the business takes a 20 percent commission.
“People can get the same content and information they would in person,” Zaal said. “They can take it when they want and with whoever they want. There’s more flexibility and convenience than a traditional tour.”
The adventures for Williamsburg should be available through the app on Monday.
Tour guides with the company are currently waiting out the storm. Prior to the closure, tour guides would be paid by tour and with tips. Now the company is providing a few payment opportunities by writing for its blog or creating adventures for the app.
“We’ve communicated with staff and they know what’s going on,” Zaal said. “We’re mostly in a holding pattern and just waiting until we can reopen.”
- Faith remains: Easter is going to look a little different this year but won’t damper the spirit
- Alcoholics Anonymous: Staying sober during the coronavirus
- Last rites amid the coronavirus: Solemnity with additional safety measures in place
- Virginia surpasses 4K coronavirus cases, 100+ have died. Local numbers also continue to rise