When entering the Prado Museum these days, at the very beginning, one can admire “The Annunciation,” Fra Angelico’s masterpiece, painted in the 15th century. The experience of watching this painting is difficult to forget. After months closed because of the pandemic, the museum decided to show its most iconic works in the central gallery, with an exhibit named “Reunited.” The new display was inspired in the one the museum had when it opened in 1819.
But for many, visiting a museum has been impossible in the last few months. The pandemic has made us miss those great experiences we like, from museums to concerts, fancy restaurants, sports events, or just drinking beer with friends. Blaise Pascal said in his Pensees that our constant search for fun prevents us from thinking about ourselves, and thus boredom “would push us to find a solid way out of our misery.” But four centuries later, the human being has been more entertained than ever. So confinement might have created an apparent vacuum in the lives of many. “Apparent,” because entertainment and fun should never be an end in itself. Pascal also wrote: “when I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”
Unfortunately, the chances are that our society has not taken this confinement period to think a bit more about ourselves, to “stay quietly in our own chambers.” Hence, we are trying to substitute physical experiences for virtual ones, sometimes with dubious success. For example, students organize zoom meetings to have “virtual beers,” friends watch a movie together online through Discord while seeing each other and talk. Some aficionados receive their yoga and art lessons from home. And, of course, we always have Netflix, Instagram, and TikTok to escape boredom, as we had before.
Nowadays, every organization is trying to bring to the internet a piece of their physical experiences. And, along the way, some find out that there is a market for fully digital experiences. An interesting case study is that of Withlocals. Being a small start-up of 60 employees, the company offers a wide variety of physical experiences in different world cities, having more than 2000 hosts. When the coronavirus expanded, the company decided to test online experiences. Withlocals LIVE was launched on March 26th with 35 online experiences, and they have expanded their offering since then.
Withlocals sold more than 1000 bookings in the first two months of the pandemic. It is still a small number, but a promising experiment. Cooking classes are the clear winners, as people are re-discovering their kitchens. But dance classes come next, followed -surprisingly- to city discovery, where hosts offer a virtual tour of their cities. When reached for this article, a spokesperson from Withlocals told me that their hosts Giada & Loris “had so many bookings that they were overloaded with tiramisu. Because they wanted to make others happy, they shared the tiramisu with their neighbors and a big part of it they took to an elderly home to surprise the residents.” Or the story of a Sri Lanka host, who earned 5000€ in 24 hours after Trip Advisor featured his cooking class in a newsletter. Withlocals is not alone: a much larger player, Airbnb, also launched very similar online experiences. And, apart from the major social media platforms, other sites offering live online experiences are LiveNation, Eventbritte, Viavii, SongKick, and Meetup.
Surprisingly, this is still a nascent industry, and one could wonder why some types of online live experiences have not exploded yet. Many people might prefer a live online experience than a physical one. Some advantages of these experiences are that you save money and time to travel, you can connect with other people you usually don’t see, you can connect with new cultures and content before investing extra time and money, you can efficiently expand your knowledge, and, most importantly today, you do it safely.
Also, online experiences can be a great complement to the physical ones. A great example is that of museums. A particularly entertaining video on Instagram (unfortunately, it is only in Spanish) is that of a Prado Museum botanist explaining the almost 40 different plant species painted by Fra Angelico in The Annunciation’s garden. After watching that 14 min video, you will probably appreciate the painting in a new way, once in front of it. Other museums like the Hermitage, the Louvre, the MET, or the Smithsonian are also offering exciting content online, but many times, only in their local language and with limited means. Unfortunately for many, their marketing budgets are also minimal.
To the best of my knowledge, there is not a good metasearcher yet that could help us find these types of experiences across the different platforms. And it is a pity, since there are so many live experiences online that are not always easy to find, unless you are already a follower of a specific host or social media account. This is a great business opportunity. I am not sure if Pascal would be happy with us having so many entertainment opportunities. Still, he would probably agree that some of these experiences expand our souls, help us connect with others, and make us better human beings.