One day about five years ago, Frank Clark was at the dentist’s office, waiting his turn, when he grabbed a magazine to kill some time.
Little did he know that, while browsing, he would come across some information that would lead to a career move. That news, to him, was that Google was offering Business View Tours, or virtual tours that featured a 360-degree panoramic virtual view of a businesses across Google, including Google Search, Google Maps and Google+.
Sitting there, Clark had what he describes as “that right feeling when you want to be doing something.”
Now 52, he’s now creating those very tours, and he says he’s never been happier. “I started out as a photographer after I finally got ahold of Google,” he said.
Can you really just call up Google? Clark did (although he had to try more than once). Now he’s the owner of the Gambrills-based company Business Photos America (BPA). “It’s crazy how it’s ballooned,” he said.
What exactly does Clark do? First, he talks to business owners and finds out “what their dream is.”
That may sound a bit idealistic, but to get the idea, visit the web site of the Historic Savage Mill (www.savagemill.com) for an example. A click on “Virtual Mill Tour” reveals his artistry, giving the viewer a sky view, glances into individual stores — “As you [look] into stores, little billboards pop up” with more information, said Clark — restaurants, professional offices and artists’ studios, and surrounding bike trails.
And that’s not all. There’s even a history lesson about the Mill included, to attract shoppers and tourists and to keep them interested in coming back.
Why spend the money on a virtual tour? After Clark shot a virtual tour of the West County Chamber, Claire Louder, the chamber’s president and CEO, said she was thrilled with the results. “We are now working with Frank to encourage all our members to claim and enhance their Google listing, which helps build SEO [search engine optimization].”
SEO is the process of affecting the visibility of a web site in a search engine’s unpaid results, also known as “natural” or “earned” results. Clark, a chamber member, offers workshops to fellow members, walking them through the process of updating their company information and enhancing their listings.
Clark’s own enthusiasm for virtually capturing the essence of a business is contagious, Louder said. “Frank is a terrific partner who brings creativity to the process of promoting local businesses.”
But what does a virtual tour cost to produce? There’s a wide range of options, depending on the size of your tour, and how many “bells and whistles” — such as video, social media services or a web site — purchased. “The most expensive one we ever did was $100,000, and the cheapest was $699,” said Clark.
His business is fully associated with Google, and his mission is to distribute Business View Tours and related services to the retail, service, hospitality, industrial, professional and institutional markets. BPA has been selected by Google as a PR/Marketing Agency of the Year, receiving a Platinum Award as a Top Performer since 2012.
Virtual tours are certainly more applicable to some types of businesses than others, said Duane Carey, president of IMPACT Marketing and Public Relations, of Columbia. “Virtual tours are very applicable to real estate or any other kind of business or industry where people need to see the interior of something,” he said.
For some products or services, this isn’t as vital. “But for any kind of catering venue, I think a virtual tour is a great application. Or, if a bride is looking for a wedding venue, she might go through the first cut online by doing virtual tours.”
Travel sites, such as Hotels.com, also regularly use virtual tours to show properties.
Clark’s web site shows the diversity of businesses that use Business View Tours. On any given day, a viewer can find the last 300 jobs performed by BPA photographers in the “portfolio” section of the company’s web site (www.businessphotosamerica.com). The list is updated and edited daily, and includes many types of businesses, ranging from gyms to dental offices to florists.
The virtual tour sector in general is booming, and not just for Clark and BPA. More and more colleges and universities are offering virtual tours to prospective students and visitors. Next summer, Howard Community College (HCC) will post a virtual tour that’s being created by CampusTours.
“We are looking for a more interactive map that will allow people to see and zoom in on buildings,” said Elizabeth Homan, HCC’s executive director of public relations and marketing for HCC.
Another virtual product arriving at HCC is Google Expeditions, a virtual reality platform built for the classroom. Google is working with teachers and content partners from around the world to create more than 100 engaging journeys that immerse students in new experiences. Expeditions’ Pioneer Program has more than 100 expeditions, ranging from museums to outer space.