Crafting Connections Across Cultures with Akila McConnell of Unexpected Virtual Tours & Training

Crafting Connections Across Cultures with Akila McConnell of Unexpected Virtual Tours & Training

Episode Overview

Episode Overview:

Episode Topic:

In this episode of Travel-Preneur, get into the digital world with Akila McConnell, the visionary behind Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training. They discuss how this platform is reshaping the way we think about travel and team building through unique virtual experiences that combine storytelling, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles, as well as immersive elements like treat boxes.

Lessons You’ll Learn:

Listeners will learn about the power of storytelling in virtual experiences and how it can create engaging and informative content. Akila shares insights into designing virtual tours that are both entertaining and educational, highlighting the importance of integrating storytelling into every aspect of the experience, from the narrative arc to the selection of locations and sensory elements like food.

About Our Guest:

Akila McConnell is the founder of Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training and has a rich background in storytelling and tour guiding. She started Unexpected Atlanta in 2015, with a focus on sharing unexpected stories that matter, such as the role of restaurants in the civil rights movement. Akilah’s passion for DEI is evident in the platform’s virtual tours, which explore diverse topics like Black History Month and AAPI Heritage Month, using storytelling to connect people with history and culture.

Topics Covered:

The conversation covers the journey from in-person tours to virtual experiences, highlighting the pivot during the pandemic and the intentional design of treat boxes to complement storytelling. Akila shares how these virtual tours have made a significant impact on teams and individuals by offering immersive experiences that go beyond traditional sightseeing, providing a deeper understanding of historical events and cultural movements.

Our Guest: Akila McConnell- Founder of Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training

Akila McConnell is a trailblazer in the world of travel and storytelling, serving as the founder of Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training. With a background deeply rooted in storytelling and tour guiding, Akilah’s journey began with the founding of Unexpected Atlanta in 2015. The core mission of Unexpected Atlanta has always been to share stories that matter, often focusing on overlooked narratives such as the pivotal role of restaurants in the civil rights movement. This commitment to highlighting untold stories has been a driving force in Akilah’s work, leading her to create unique and engaging virtual experiences that challenge traditional notions of travel and team building.

Her passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is evident in Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training’s approach, particularly in their exploration of topics like Black History Month and AAPI Heritage Month. Through these virtual tours, Akilah uses storytelling as a powerful tool to connect people with history and culture, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for the diverse world around us. This dedication to DEI principles has not only shaped the content of the tours but has also influenced the design of the experiences, ensuring that every aspect is inclusive and educational.

Akila’s journey with Unexpected Virtual Tours and Training has been marked by innovation and resilience, particularly highlighted by the pivot to virtual experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. This transition showcased Akilah’s ability to adapt to challenging circumstances while staying true to the company’s mission. By integrating elements like treat boxes into the virtual tours, Akilah has created a multi-sensory experience that enhances the storytelling, making the virtual tours not just informative but also deeply engaging and memorable.

Crafting Connections Across Cultures with Akila McConnell of Unexpected Virtual Tours & Training
Crafting Connections Across Cultures with Akila McConnell of Unexpected Virtual Tours & Training

Episode Transcript

Megha McSwain: Welcome back to TravelPreneur, the podcast where innovation meets the world of travel. I’m your host, Megan McSwain. Today we’re diving into the digital realm of travel with Akilah McConnell, the visionary behind unexpected virtual tours and training. Akilah combines her endless energy and curiosity to create unique virtual experiences that are not only engaging, but also foster team cohesion through Dei training. Let’s explore how unexpected virtual tours and training are reshaping the way we think about travel and team building. Akilah, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for having me. Megha is really excited to be here. Yes, us too. Akilah. With such a rich background, what inspired you to start Over? So it’s kind of a funny story. So we started off back in 2015 as an in-person tour company, Unexpected Atlanta, and even back in 2015. The goal and the purpose of our company has always been to tell and to share unexpected stories that matter. I mean, those stories that you don’t normally hear, these are stories of maybe disenfranchised minorities of women, of people who you might not think about in specific ways. And as a great example, our very first tour that we launched in 2015 told the story of how Doctor King was a foodie and it related soul food to the civil rights movement, because actually, the civil rights leaders, it was a grassroots movement. They didn’t have a ton of money, so they used a lot of restaurants to set up their meetings and to plan events.

Akila McConnell: And like the I Have a Dream speech, those were planned at restaurants and the restaurant owners gave the civil rights workers free space. So we had this amazing opportunity to share the story of these unsung heroes, you know, restaurant owners who really kind of fed the movement. And the business grew very, very quickly. Of course, in 2020, as we all know, Covid happened and we had to shut down all of our in-person tours. It was funny. I actually looked at it the other day, March 14th. It was in Atlanta when Covid shut everything down, and by March 20th, we had spun out unexpected virtual tours and training. And given your passion for Dei, how do you integrate these principles into your virtual tours and training sessions? Kind of. How did that process change from in-person to virtual? One of the things that I feel really strongly is that you have to know your brand. You have to know your brand’s mission. We have always been super clear on our mission, which is to share these unexpected stories that matter. And so when we pivoted into virtual space, that mission didn’t change at all. It was the exact same mission. And we felt, especially with everything going on with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, our mission was even more important than ever, just like we had done with the King Tour and with others, we started building out a very unique products that told the story of a specific topic or event and then integrated in virtual live sightseeing, which is where the tours come into play.

Akila McConnell: And again, we were focused on sharing those things. You wouldn’t normally see those places you wouldn’t normally visit, the places that you might just walk by on the street. And maybe they were historically super important. Can you share an instance where you felt one of the virtual tours made a significant impact on a team or an individual person? Yeah, absolutely. So we provide tons of virtual tours. Last year we had, uh, 24,000 attendees on virtual tour experiences with over 440 organizations. And these are the world’s largest companies. So like meta, Amazon, Google, you name it, Capital One, we’ve probably hosted them. For us, it’s really about thinking about how we can share places and stories that people wouldn’t experience on their own. And I think one of our most impactful experiences is our Black History Month experience. In one hour, we tell the story of Carter Woodson, who was the founder of Black History Month, and we tell the story as a way to share how the concept of diversity education is actually really important. And along the way, you have this one hour experience. The whole story is about Carter Woodson. We have live streaming guides in Washington, DC who are coming in and showing you Doctor Woodson’s home.

Akila McConnell: They show you art associated with Doctor Woodson. They show you the place where he used to walk. World where he used to teach. And then we have a guide on the ground in Atlanta who shows how the impact of Doctor Woodson’s work actually influenced the civil rights movement. We have locations all around the country and all around the world that we utilize. We have guides in South America, we have guides in Nashville, we have guides in Austin, we have guides all over the place. But ultimately, the point for us is we’re not just taking you on a sightseeing journey, we’re taking you on a storytelling journey, and we use our virtual tours as a way to supplement our storytelling. And with such a range of topics like, you know, Black History Month, music history, Juneteenth, how do you design these virtual experiences to be both informative and engaging, entertaining for so many people? Yeah, I mean, that’s absolutely the secret sauce, right? Coming back to this whole concept of storytelling, one of the things that I think is super interesting in the virtual tour market is that in 2020, there were a lot of virtual tour companies that popped up. You might have seen some of them, like yonder was one of them, big private equity related ventures, etc. and 90% of them have gone bankrupt, have shut down, or gone out of business. And we are every year continuing to grow by 20% every year, year over year.

Akila McConnell: I think the difference is that we really utilize and optimize storytelling, and I’m sure that others on the travel Preneur podcast have discussed this, that there’s kind of two different ways that you can be a tour guide. You can be like the point and shoot tour guide, and that means you’re walking around a city street and you’re like, oh, look at this. This is interesting. Look at this. This is interesting. Look at this. This is interesting. Or you can say, let me tell you a story. The story begins here with point A. And then this event happened and we’re looking at point B. And then this event happens and we’re looking at point C which is where that event happened. A lot of the initial virtual tour companies were doing the point and shoot mentality. And frankly, the problem with that is we live in a world with exceptional content out there. But what there isn’t a ton of is there isn’t a ton of exceptional storytelling out there, right? Especially exceptional live storytelling that’s super hard to find. So that’s what we’re providing. And I think, of course, we use all those things like the narrative arc, but really we’re using a lot of what I consider core storytelling functionality for storytelling principles, designer experiences. And we continue to use them for both our in-person tours as well as our virtual.

Megha McSwain: This episode is brought to you by TravelPayments.Com travel businesses have unique needs when it comes to credit card processing, from large, average ticket sizes and tolerance for higher chargeback ratios to simple integrations with the most popular shopping cart systems. The travel industry specialists at Travel have you covered. Unfortunately, many of the most popular credit card processors initially accept travel businesses, but without warning, freeze their merchant accounts and the thousands of dollars in them. Because these service providers don’t understand or support the unique needs of travel industry business, don’t get stuck with one of the big guys who will freeze you out without a moment’s notice. Instead, work with the travel industry specialist who will support your business every step of the way. Visit Travel to get a free quote today. Can you explain? Do you guys have treat boxes? Can you explain?

Megha McSwain: The process of treating boxes? Especially like with the emphasis.

Megha McSwain: Of the businesses behind.

Akila McConnell: Them? That’s something that in 2020 we saw a ton of tour companies pivoting into the treat box space. Everybody saw it as like, this is just a way to make some money by buying some time until we can start doing tours again. But we have always seen the treat boxes as a supplement to our storytelling. We actually integrate the foods that are in the treat boxes with the live virtual storytelling. So let me give you an example of this. If you come and you take our AAPI Heritage Month tour on that experience, we’re telling the story of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States. We start with the Filipino population in the 1500s, go through the Chinese population in San Francisco, and we have a live streaming guide in San Francisco who’s showing you around Chinatown. The treat box has food items from a Filipino owned food entrepreneur that we are able to talk about in the live experience. Same thing. We’ve got a Chinese American owned vendor who was then able to talk about that food in the experience. Everything is very intentional and everything is wrapped around that storytelling. I think the people that have continued to be successful with treat boxes and I mean, frankly, any type of e-commerce box is that you are looking for something that wraps it up together.

Akila McConnell: You’re not just looking for a whole bunch of random products. You want a story behind those random products that make it work. And the way that we like to explain it is, imagine that you’re sitting there on your couch scrolling through Netflix and you see a documentary and you’re like, oh, okay, I’m going to watch this. The difference between watching a Netflix documentary on, say, Juneteenth is that that documentary is passive. You’re just going to be sitting there getting information input to you. On the other hand, if you do one of our Juneteenth experiences, you’re going to be interacting live with our guides who are going to be asking you trivia questions. You’re going to be playing games with them. You’re going to be tasting the food that makes Juneteenth so special. You’re going to be smelling those products, all of that. And we are fully aware that, you know, travel is a privilege. And it’s something that I think in the travel industry we don’t talk about enough is that not everybody can afford to travel. In fact, most people can’t afford to travel. Even road trips are very expensive with gas and hotels and restaurants. But the education provided by travel, the knowledge, the impact the travel can provide, can be just as great in a virtual setting.

Akila McConnell: Juneteenth is a really great example of this because one of the live streaming locations we have is Hampton, Virginia, which is where the first enslaved people landed in 1619. So if you’ve ever heard of, like, the 1619 New York Times project, that is the spot that we’re talking about, and we have a live streaming guide there, I can tell you. Probably 99.99% of the American population is never going to go to Hampton, Virginia. It’s a relatively small town. It’s kind of like over there, you know, but we can bring that population to Hampton and they can see these important locations live with us. And if they tell our guide, hey, I see. This thing. Can you show that to us a little bit better? Our guide can do that live, which is so much better than what you get on Netflix, where you’re stuck with whatever the videographer decided to show you, right? Right. Super cool on the left and you can’t see it. Ultimately, I do think we see virtual travel and virtual tourism as both a great way to train companies, train students to share really important history and stories. But it is also a way to make the entire concept of travel itself more inclusive, right, and.

Megha McSwain: More accessible.

Akila McConnell: And more accessible. It’s also accessible. We have a live virtual tour with a guide in Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is not wheelchair accessible yet. There are people who have been able to do it, but it is very difficult if you are somebody who is in a wheelchair. But we can take you live with our guide, who is a trained archaeologist and knows so much about Machu Picchu. That is a really incredible thing. And you can ask him all those questions that you wanted to have directly.

Megha McSwain: You mentioned working with a lot of big companies. How has the reception between or been from major clients like Google and Coca-Cola?

Megha McSwain: And what.

Megha McSwain: Feedback have they provided on all of this?

Akila McConnell: Tons of feedback. Our clients love it. As I said last year, we did over 25,000 or something like that. Attendees with like 500 ish companies and 40% of our customers are repeat customers, meaning that they’ve taken multiple of our experiences. We have close to 2505-star reviews on Google. The reception and the feedback is incredible. One thing that we’re really branching into now is working with state agencies and federal agencies, because they have a real need for interactive and interesting Dei training. By the way, Dei is about diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s a very hot topic right now talking about accessibility. You know, this is a super-hot topic. One of the reasons it is a hot topic is that often there are unfortunately some suppliers who don’t have a lot of training and a lot of expertise and have kind of come into this recently. And then there’s like negative impacts that occur where actually employees feel harmed. On the other hand, we’re getting 100% of employees coming back and saying, this was amazing. I want more of this, I want more. I mean, like, who wants more training? Like what? Employees. That’s a company. I want more training. We see this as a way in which we can share these really important stories, really important concepts. Because the other thing that we build into every experience is those learning concepts. For example, on Juneteenth, while you’re also seeing these amazing sites, you’re also going to be learning what the difference is between advocacy versus allyship. And we have trained instructional designers. We have trained historians and trained Dei consultants on our staff who are helping build out all of this content. So it is impactful.  It is purposeful, but it’s also fun.

Megha McSwain: Looking to the future, how do you see virtual tours evolving within the travel industry and what innovations, if any, are you excited about?

Akila McConnell: I think again, this is a really interesting topic because I’ve seen a lot of pushback and frankly, a lot of skepticism in the travel industry about the use and the purpose of virtual tours. I see this as a huge opportunity because just like you said, this is all about inclusivity and accessibility.  A really good way to think about this, right, is imagine that you’re planning a trip to the Dominican Republic and you’ve never been there before. You’re really nervous about booking this trip. What are some of the things that you’re going to do? You’re going to go on to Google and you’re going to search the Dominican Republic, probably. If you’re like me, you’re going to go to YouTube and you’re going to search up some videos, right? And do you do that? Megan. Yeah, for sure. Always.  you’re going to look up some videos and you’re going to say, oh wow, this looks really beautiful. I want to do this. I want to go to this location. I think in addition to like the way that we’re using virtual tours, which is as like a training and team building exercise, I can see virtual tours being a humongous marketing tool for Cvbs, for Dmos, if you’re a city like Atlanta, like my city, or maybe you’re a smaller city, like maybe Birmingham, Alabama, or maybe Charleston, South Carolina, and you’re trying to convince a convention that they should come and book you.

Akila McConnell: City and they’re concerned, well, are people going to have enough to do? Of course, you can send them all of the videos, but imagine how much better it would be if you could do a true live streaming tour with a guide who knows the history, who knows the area, and they can be talking to those guides. This actually becomes like a fully-fledged sales process. To me, this is a no brainer and it is something that we are using on our in-person side, like, especially if it’s a large group, because we do a lot of B2B.  if we have a 200-person event coming and we want them to rent out the space and they’re like, I’m not sure, we’ll say, okay, let’s set up a zoom call. And as part of the zoom call, we’ll have a live guide live streaming from the location that we’re going to be at so that they can see it. And we do a good job. We’ve got the equipment because this is the other thing. You know, a lot of people will just hold their iPhone in their hand and expect that that’s all you need. No, you need the right software.

Akila McConnell: You need the right type of gimbal. You might need some filters, definitely need the right type of phone. I mean, you need the right type of mic. So there is equipment that you need, but that equipment can be a masterful sales tool. As far as innovation, I think there’s so much right. Of course, there’s VR, there’s Apple Vision. All of this is so exciting. I think at this point, most of it is not really affordable. And because it’s not really affordable, it’s not really accessible. One of the things we are actually actively doing is kind of the reverse. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to integrate the virtual space in our physical, in-person tours, meaning that if you’re taking a tour with us, our guides actually have audio speakers connected to their backpacks, and we’re pulling in on important recordings so that we’re telling you a story and then we’re saying, okay, here’s the story about Doctor King, how he was getting set up to have the I Have a Dream speech. And then our guides are playing. I have a dream speech for you. Right? Lied. Same thing. We’re now testing the utilization of pico projectors and that sort of thing. There’s so much great technology out there and the future is just huge on this, right.

Megha McSwain: And for someone looking to start their own unique virtual experience platform just based on your own journey, what advice would you offer them?

Akila McConnell: I mean, I think the biggest thing is just make sure that you are really thinking outside the box. It’s so easy to think about this, a very narrow mindset and be like, okay, I can only do tours in this way, but when you really think outside the box, explore all of the technology that’s out there, and think about this as a way to broaden your user base, creating more accessible products, more inclusive products. I think there’s so much opportunity, and it’s a really exciting time to be living and building a business in Akila.

Megha McSwain: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and showing us the powerful connection between virtual experiences and cultural awareness. I’m so glad that you are bringing this to so many people, because I think it’s important to our listeners. Thank you for tuning in. Let our listeners know where they can learn more about this company and you, and where they can connect online.

Akila McConnell: You can find us on LinkedIn at Unexpected Virtual Tours. You can also find us on Unexpected Atlanta on Instagram. It’s unexpected ATL and you can always reach out to me. Akila McConnell on LinkedIn.Megha McSwain: Great. To our listeners. Don’t forget to follow and subscribe to travel Preneur for more inspiring stories from the travel industry. Until next time, keep exploring the world, whether physically or virtually. Thanks so much. Thank you.