There he was, high in a eucalyptus tree, all snuggled up and lazing in the glow of the early morning Byron Bay sun. Cuddly Hemsworth (named after Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) made little to no movement. If not for my Beeyonder guide and koala whisperer Wendy Bithell, pointing out the odd butt scratch, yawn, or ear twitch, I would scarcely know we’d caught the rare sight of a koala undisturbed in its natural habitat.
I’ve been in the physical presence of a koala before—once from a distance at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, another in Queensland where I had the privilege to hold a rather ripe-smelling fella for a glory snap—but this experience felt the most real, even though I was observing him on Zoom and from a different continent. Over the next hour, Wendy dispensed nuggets about this marsupial’s quirks (koalas sleep 18 hours a day but poop up to 150 times daily; they’re also tiny gourmands carefully sniff-testing each eucalyptus leaf) while keeping the camera lens on him so we could watch his movements in real time. I realized this immersive experience would be the closest I’ll likely get to a koala bear, especially now that it’s a species vulnerable to extinction.
The rise of virtual travel
While much of the travel industry came to a grinding halt in 2020, the virtual travel sector spiked in popularity. As trips were upended, tickets and bookings canceled or indefinitely postponed, travel enthusiasts turned to their devices to wanderlust. Virtual tours once used to pre-vet destinations, or as a novelty guest add-on, became the only avenue anyone would get their travel fix for 2020.
For Boston entrepreneur Brittany Palmer, this captive homebound state was one of the many reasons she launched Beeyonder, a virtual travel platform, in December 2020. The name, derived from a mix of “beyond” and “wonder” with an extra “e” because of Palmer’s love of nature and conservation, fits the platform perfectly. Home to more than 340 experiences in 50 countries (plus Antarctica) hosted by expert guides, it offers visits to a small Viking village in Norway, a live walk through the bustling Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, or the chance to go on a night trek in Byron Bay to spot wildlife that glow Avatar blue under UV light (spoiler alert: wallabies do, kangaroos don’t).
Browsable by experience, niche, or via specific countries or operators, Beeyonder tours offer real-time interaction with a guide in either a private or small-group setting (no more than 25 guests) with experiences starting from $10 (group) and $99 (private).
More than just serving the travel-starved, Palmer, who is Beeyonder’s founder and CEO, sees virtual travel staying postpandemic as a permanent part of the industry.
“Beeyonder’s role in the travel industry is providing people with disabilities and other conditions that prohibit or inhibit travel the option to see places they cannot see in person,” says Palmer via email. “There will still be 40 plus million people in the U.S. alone that fall into this category after the pandemic subsides. Our main goal is to deliver the ultimate equal access to travel.”
An avid traveler herself and a bilateral amputee, Palmer is uniquely aware of the challenges posed to those who travel with disabilities. While she has had the resources and ability to go on bucket-list trips like a safari in Tanzania and to Egypt to see the ancient tombs and temples up close, she’s mindful not everyone is as fortunate. Hence every tour is carefully vetted by the Beeyonder team to ensure each provider has adequate experience and knowledge to conduct virtual tours, while providing value-added, real-time interaction through tools like 3-D imaging and partnering with expert guides. “Beeyonder is a way for people to explore places they are interested in visiting, or would like to visit but maybe it’s too expensive or they have other places they are saving to visit in-person,” says Palmer.
“Our main goal is to deliver the ultimate equal access to travel.”
Enhancing the experience
Despite virtual vacations being a relatively new market, it’s not without the presence of heavy-hitting players like Airbnb’s Experiences and Amazon Explore. Palmer is unfazed, deciding instead to double down on Beeyonder’s strengths—transparent pricing, personalized guest experiences, and curated tours evaluated by the team—while investing in a suite of features not found on other platforms.
To book an experience, guests can view a tour’s availability, or reach out directly to the guide/tour operator to ask about the experience, or query possible areas of interest to cover. There’s also the option to book a private experience, as well as a breakdown of the tour’s cost (either a tiered or set price). Once a tour is booked, an email with a Zoom link will be provided (this is also accessible via Beeyonder’s “My Experience” dashboard) with a reminder sent a day before. Guests are allowed to cancel up to seven days before the experience and will receive a gift card of the same value in return.
Scaling the platform has been key for Beeyonder. Palmer personally did “lots of cold emailing, outreach, and virtual meetings” at the start, using the opportunity to present Beeyonder’s mission and the perks of signing up. “We also used affiliate partnerships to start, and do still have a number of them on our site, but direct tour operators/guides now account for a large majority of what we list,” notes Palmer.
“We will add a prerecorded part of our platform for authentic tours around the world this fall. We also have a few other items we are working on for live and interactive experiences related to integrating some new technology,” she says. Additionally, Palmer is looking at extending Beeyonder’s utility to supplement elementary- and college-level education and as a pretrip planning tool to help globe-trotters (disabled or otherwise) navigate the changes that come with traveling in a post-COVID-19 world.
“For millions of people, virtual travel is the only way to see different places, so it is a substitute for in-person experiences,” says Palmer, who also envisions Beeyonder as a tool for the elderly to fight loneliness. “For others, virtual travel can be a way for someone interested in a particular area of a certain country to experience it with a local, without having to spend time and money to go there.”
As I replayed the Zoom clip pointing out cuddly Hemsworth to my excited toddler, I realized that even if Australia were open now (the country remains closed to international visitors until mid-2022), we would not have had this experience. The opportunity to observe Hemsworth uninterrupted by camera flashes and selfie sticks while hearing about conservation efforts like Byron Bay’s Bangalow Koalas’ aim to build a koala wildlife corridor from Byron Bay down to Tenterfield and Grafton and the campaign to establish a Great Koala National Park is a priceless, insightful encounter that far exceeds this experience’s ticket price: $120 (single), from $30 (per person groups of 4 and up), or $200 (for up to 20 people).
Virtual travel may not fully engage all five senses, but when done right, it delivers the same elements that make traveling so addictive: the opportunity to experience encounters that enrich our life and memories leaving us forever changed. For now though, I’m happy to have Hemsworth on replay as my toddler’s wave and “hi/bye!” buddy—perhaps by the time we travel to Australia I’ll be able to get her to say “G’day!”
For more information on Beeyonder, visit beeyonder.com.