If you attended last week’s Skift conference in New York City, there were a few technologies that were continuously mentioned whenever the subject turned to those things that would truly transform the world of travel.
One was AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the ability to better serve customers by using data to anticipate needs and provide recommendations and solutions. Related to that was the power of voice technology and the ability to speak to devices that would be able to respond to natural language. And the third was virtual reality and its ability to help people discover and experience things in a truly immersive and compelling way.
The question wasn’t if these three areas would revolutionize our industry, but when.
Nearly all of the big brands and OTAs that spoke at the conference indicated they are busy exploring and developing things related to these areas — no doubt pouring considerable dollars and endless hours into these efforts.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the wherewithal or technical skills to fully optimize voice or get our products directly integrated into Amazon’s Alexa or other platforms. And AI isn’t something you just do yourself, although companies like WayBlazer and their link to IBM Watson technology are giving travel brands the tools to begin to leverage the possibilities.
That leaves virtual reality. And the good news is that you can begin to harness some of VR’s undeniable potential for as little as a few hundred dollars — making this future cornerstone of travel accessible to even the smallest of businesses.
For many of us, it means dipping our toe in the VR waters by recording 360° video and then wrapping it in a branded mobile app you build, or simply publish it to an existing platform like Samsung VR or YouTube 360°. This allows your video to be readily viewed in VR devices like Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, and they can also be embedded and viewed on other platforms, such as your website.
While you could easily and justifiably spend huge amounts on high-quality production, you can also begin to experiment with VR yourself by using inexpensive cameras like the Kodak PixPro ($447), 360fly ($399) or many others that are affordable introductions to 360° photography and videography.
It feels a bit like the “old days,” before smartphones, when we had staff running around our hotels and attractions with inexpensive flip cameras capturing the guest experience from a human perspective like never before.
Of course, there’s more sophisticated equipment like the GoPo Odyssey which was developed in partnership with Google and links together 16 different cameras. Even at a retail price of $15,000, it isn’t so expensive that a destination or a good-sized resort couldn’t readily justify the expense as a way to create an abundance of engaging and shareable content.
There are also companies like Matterport that are popular in the real estate category that make it easy to showcase accommodations and physical space in 3D. For $4,500, you can purchase their special camera and get access to related services that allow you to easily document your property and have it readily transformed into a virtual tour that can live on your website or be used with Samsung’s VR devices.
No matter what approach you use, investing in VR isn’t about chasing the latest trend or fad, as VR will increasingly be how people will discover and first experience brands and it’s what consumers are telling us they want today.
In a recent study of more than 1,200 mainstream U.S. consumers, nearly 74% stated that they were “Interested” or “Very Interested” in travel, tourism and adventure experiences delivered via VR as opposed to only 67% for movies and recorded videos and 61% who were interested in using it for gaming. Just as compelling, while consumers like 360° videos and imagery presented in any form, research shows that they typically engage for one minute in a non-VR environment versus an incredible 10 minutes in VR!
While it’s true that VR hardware currently has relatively low penetration, it does present a great opportunity for travel brands to put their logo on these devices and get them into the hands of curious customers who are eager to experience VR for themselves. Here’s a chance to outfit guest rooms, cabins and seat backs with VR devices that allow travelers to experience aspects of your product or surrounding area.
With your well-crafted 360° content in hand and the holidays right around the corner, a VR headset adorned with your brand could be a great gift item for top customers and Google Cardboard (at $5-10 per unit) could be an affordable premium item to liberally hand out at select trade shows and events.
As you consider your own approach to VR, there is no shortage of brands you can look to for inspiration. Marriott has been playing with VR since 2014, even adding it to the room-service experience at select hotels and Lufthansa recently introduced VR headsets at the gates and check-in at several airports to better show off their aircraft and upsell clients to premium economy seating.
Speaking at the Skift conference, Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation, said they view VR as vitally important to their brand because it’s “hard to sample a cruise” and that he was urging his team to develop the kind of VR that would allow a user to not just see how a cruise experience looks but, more importantly, to sense how it feels.
As with any new technology, the best way to understand and leverage VR is to use it for yourself. Whether you’re doing it to learn, to garner public relations and drive social engagement, or to solve specific business issues, the opportunities are everywhere and the cost to test the waters are no longer a barrier.
For all of us in travel, the future is virtually now.