About a year ago in this column, I waxed poetic about the potential Google’s self-driving car has to revolutionize the rental car industry. Since the car is in the very early stage, proof-of-concept testing, such a revolution is years, if not decades, off; however, there is one revolution that Google is already helping fuel today—virtual tourism.
According to its website, Virtual Photo Walks is a project that allows photographers to “walk the walk for those who can’t.” Armed with a smartphone or other streaming-enabled camera and a Google+ Hangout, the photographer takes home-based “travelers” on a journey around whatever location they choose. Recent walks have included Istanbul, the Raspail Market in Paris, and a beach in Hawaii. With nearly 2.5 million followers on Google+, Virtual Photo Walks has helped those who can’t travel themselves see the world—and become part of a growing international community online.
The development of these long-distance photo walks isn’t just a heartwarming story; it’s a sign of things to come for travel marketers. Over the past month, Google has begun the slow rollout of its “Google Glasses” to early adopters who were selected from the thousands of people who tweeted what they would do #ifihadglass earlier this year. With a camera, screen, voice controls, and internet connectivity built right in, Google Glasses turn everyone who wears them into a virtual tourism provider. And as a result, travel marketers need to begin thinking about what this revolution of wearable, streaming video cameras means to their business.
One big implication that jumps out at me is that tourist destinations, tours, and resorts will need to offer more “try before you buy” video content. Instead of providing photos of a zip line, you’ll need to upgrade to POV videos shot with Google Glasses. And if you’re a cruise line, you won’t be able to just describe your shore excursions any longer; you’ll need to provide a virtual walking tour in order to give your passengers more visual information about what they will experience.
To some marketers, this may feel like you’re giving away the farm. After all, you’re selling unique experiences that not everyone gets to have. But that’s the thing—you’re selling the experience, not just the visuals.
A good analogy comes from the music industry which has been wrestling with the impact of digital media for over a decade. Take a look at Justin Timberlake’s recent album release strategy for the “20/20 Experience.” Instead of just releasing a single and then the album, he streamed the entire album for free a week prior to the release date. The strategy paid off as he sold nearly 1 million albums the first week of release—a record for him personally and the highest sales volume of any debut since Taylor Swift’s “Red” last October (1.2 million).
Instead of thinking of virtual tour video as “giving away” something, wise travel marketers will embrace it—much like streaming musicians have—as building interest among high-value, internet-savvy customers. The more detailed, personal, and specific your video tours can be, the more likely you’ll attract consumers who want to taste, touch, feel, and smell the experience you documented. Plus, when you tie those experiences to Google+, YouTube or other social channels, you can build your own loyal audience of subscribers, fans, and followers just like Virtual Photo Walks.
Still not convinced? Think about using Google Glasses to record a daily welcome message from a property manager or an interview with a local vendor, entertainer or incredibly satisfied guest. With the technology of video creation and delivery so seamlessly intertwined, there will simply be no excuse for travel brands to bring more of their surroundings to life for prospective guests. Virtual tourism, it seems, may quickly become a driving force for actual tourism.
And that’s a future it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see coming.