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New technology to shop, tour downtown St. Joseph virtually

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ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -- St. Joseph is a lakefront oasis tourists flock to in the summertime, but the coronavirus pandemic has that number at new lows.

The Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber partnered with virtual reality company CrazeVR to create “See St. Joseph” — giving tourists and residents the opportunity to still enjoy the town while feeling safe at home.

“Say you’re a tourist wanting to come and visit, you know exactly where you want to go because you’ve already been there and you haven’t even left your house yet,” said Mark Rutherford, owner of CrazeVR.

Craze VR was one of many Berrien County businesses forced to close by the pandemic, but when the Chamber of Commerce was thinking of innovative ways to keep tourism going, it gave the virtual reality company a chance to re-open and try something new.

See St. Joseph allows visitors to click around the city, go inside businesses and even browse their products.

“When you’re in the virtual tour itself, you’re able to open links and it’ll open it up directly to that item within the tour,” said Rutherford. “Think about it like this, if I have an item on Amazon I just scroll down, but if there was something here in the store that I didn’t see before, it has that option to look at that as well and give you more of a visual feel like you’re there.”

The idea was sparked by the Chamber after meeting with city officials concerned over COVID-19’s impact on summer tourism.

“We brought up the fact that tourism was down 70 percent and we still need to find a way to keep folks dreaming and yearning to come to St. Joseph, so what better way than to bring St. Joe to their living room,” said Arthur Havlicek, president of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber.

What makes See St. Joseph different than just simply getting on Google Earth are the direct resources visitors are given to local businesses.

“They won’t give you the links, they won’t specialize in the businesses, they won’t specialize in the town,” said Rutherford. “So if you click on those you can really feel like you’re part of it and it becomes an emotional bond between you and that town.”

The Chamber says this virtual option will stick around even after the pandemic and they hope to get other Southwest Michigan towns involved as well.

“It’s certainly not limited to St. Joe, any community can do a virtual tour of their downtown, in fact the chamber encourages it and any business that wants to showcase what they have to offer,” said Havlicek.

The Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber has also created a Facebook group called Buy Local Berrien to encourage local shopping as well as a campaign called Southwest Michigan Safe, where decals are put on windows of businesses that pledged to follow a set of COVID-19 safety guidelines.

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