In love with the city: Moscow guides talking about their work post lockdown and prospects of the tourism industry
Limitations associated with the COVID-19 epidemic have urged many creative professionals to find new approaches to their work. The guides were no exception. Well-known Moscow guides shared their feelings about going online, spoke about how they benefited from the current situation, and predicted what awaits the tourism industry in the near future.
“We need to find new forms of interaction”
Philip Smirnov is a winner of the Moscow Masters. He’s been in business for 15 years. He is also a member of the Public Chamber of the City of Moscow and a radio host. Before the pandemic, he prepared and made tours for different groups of tourists, including schoolchildren and people with limited mobility. However, the work had to be transferred to a digital format when the lockdown stroke. According to Philip, it was not painless to adapt to the online. The lack of contact with the audience was the main problem:
“I was a sort of ready for this, since I have been developing augmented reality routes for quite a long time as requested by different companies and teams. I have an experience of developing excursions and audio guides on different platforms; that is, I can imagine what excursions are without direct participation. So I mostly adapted; although the number of excursions decreased dramatically, as people were scared. Even now sometimes, people still ask if I am or was infected, or did I get a vaccine and so on, before going on a tour”.
In 2020, together with colleagues from the Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage, Philip Smirnov took part in developing intellectual local history dictation called “The Moscow Code” and several routes for the Basmania Museum of the Basmanny district. Also among the works created by him are unusual virtual walks.
“We did several tours on the maps at the request of the Cultural Heritage Department. Imagine there is a cultural heritage site in the woods, and we have to speak about it and show it. I had to get additional visual material, make special preparations, go to the site, take photos, and then show it on the screen. This is probably one of the most serious challenges that I have faced”, he says.
Despite his great demand during the pandemic, Philip admits that he was very much looking forward to the restrictive measures come the to end in order to conduct excursions again. Many sightseers prefer walks and direct involvement to online activities.
When assessing the tourism industry, Philip Smirnov regretfully notes that the situation in the capital is not the easiest so far in terms of sightseeing activities and hotel services: some facilities still have limited access, some projects could not be implemented due to lack of funding. However, this gives all market players an opportunity to think and draw the right conclusions, accepting conditions of the new reality.
“Classic excursions will not go into the shadows”
Tour guide Yevgeny Stepanov, the initiator of the Walking in Moscow project, is convinced that virtual tours still can hardly be compared to traditional excursions, despite their wide distribution during the pandemic:
“An excursion is first of all walking. Thus, all online lectures, crazy presentations, lots of multimedia — it was great for the first two months of the pandemic. When people rushed to the Internet, we were very much afraid that classic excursions would die out as a genre. In fact, we realized in two months that excursions would always be popular, because they bear human emotions, and that’s the most important thing”.
He remarks, however, that the Muscovites’ demand to communicate during the lockdown still confirmed the importance of the online tours. It helped many people to keep in touch and learn something new, without leaving the confines of their homes.
According to Yevgeny, the main advantage of online excursions is almost complete freedom of action for the guide, since they are not tied to a specific place and can connect sites regardless of location.
“For example, you talk about Pushkin's Moscow. If this is an standard offline tour, then you can do it only by walking through the German Quarter with Basmanny Streets or around Nikitskaya street, Arbat street, where there are several sites associated with Pushkin. But if the tour is online, you can list all the places related to the poet — all 70 sites. You can show slides and turn it not just into an online tour, but into a scientific lecture”, he explains.
Yevgeny tried to make the most of the difficult situation associated with the lockdown, and began to actively develop new routes together with like-minded people. As a result, there are about 400 walking and 50 bus tours today in the Walking in Moscow project, covering not only the capital, but other parts of Russia too.
“We have such routes to Veliky Novgorod, Pskov, Valdai, Russian North, Karelia, Kizhi, Valaam, Solovetsky Islands, Baikal and many other regions. And it was during the pandemic that we began to study and develop more routes around the country — to Sevastopol, Simferopol, and Yalta. We did not just go and look at some sites — we made original tours associated with the names of Fyodor Chaliapin, Anton Chekhov, architect Krasnov, and dedicated to the heroic Sevastopol, the Romanovs in Livadia”, he notes.
The pandemic also prompted the participants of the Walking in Moscow project to purchase audio guides for remote transmission of information with disposable headphones for visitors. According to Yevgeny, conducting excursions in this way will be in demand for a long time.
“The pandemic has shown that the audience needs much more attention. And it became clear that the classic tours will never drop off the radar, because the human desire to see firsthand these mansions, this amazing architecture, or to go into these quiet alleyways will never run out”, Yevgeny says. “I believe that the Moscow excursion business and the Moscow hiking tourism will soon experience a kind of renaissance”.
“A tour is a two-way and mutually enriching process”
Larisa Skrypnik, senior researcher at the Museum of Moscow, Moscow history expert and author of children books about the capital. Like many of her colleagues, she was looking forward to the end of the quarantine to return to the usual work mode:
“The transition to the online was not easy, because for me, the tour means more than streaming certain information on the site; it is a two-sided and mutually enriching process, when tourists become partners, collaborators and interlocutors. I am the one speaking, of course. But I can see in the eyes, emotions, and responses of my listeners what they are particularly interested in, what resonates in their hearts, so each tour is unique, even if it follows the same route. The online format,once you understand that there is someone on the other side of the screen, but you can't see their eyes — this was probably the main problem for me”.
Speaking about the difference in the preparation of online and offline excursions, Larisa notes that in the first case, it takes much more time and effort, since additional visual material is required: not only historical photos, but also modern images are used. As a result, the guide's portfolio becomes more voluminous.
At the same time, the great advantage of the digital format, in her opinion, is that anyone can join the online tour, regardless of their location and time of day.
“You need much more time to participate in a traditional tour: just getting to the site is long enough, as Moscow is a very big city. And now we can give tours for those who, for various reasons, can not leave their homes or take long walks. And of course, residents of other regions can walk around Moscow”.
According to Larisa, during the lockdown she learned to find various historical photos faster and improved her presentation skills. In total, last year she prepared 16 virtual tours:
“Most of all, I like a set of mini-tours “Tales and stories of Moscow alleyways”. These are short and pleasant-to-see tours, where I talk about the history of the site, its inhabitants, the remarkable buildings and the urban legends associated with them”.
Later Larisa moved some of the online excursions to offline.
This year, the profession of a tour guide was included in the list of the Moscow Masters competition, one of the most prestigious competitions of professional skills. It has been held since 1998. The competition is designed to promote mass professions that are in demand in the city.