Making virtual a reality
Virtual and augmented reality offer new ways for prospective travelers to experience and learn about destinations, products or brands. But there are limitations to the technology’s wider adoption.
Illustration by MR Neon/Shutterstock.com
Illustration by MR Neon/Shutterstock.com
Looking for a cruise vacation but not sure where to go? What if you could ask Celebrity Cruises’ Capt. Kate McCue about her favorite destination? What if you could go there as well as check out spaces on the ship she helms, the Celebrity Beyond? And what if you could do it without getting off your couch?
Enter the Wonderverse, Celebrity’s foray into the digital world, where visitors can do all of that from an Internet browser.
Consumers entering Celebrity’s Wonderverse can meet McCue’s avatar (as well as that of Celebrity CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo), take tours of four of the Beyond’s spaces, play games and learn about destinations that Celebrity visits.
The cruise line is among an increasing number of travel companies that are betting that an experience that is more immersive than online photos and videos can convert their websites into a more convincing and effective sales channel.
Tripadvisor and the San Diego Tourism Authority are among the other travel and tourism companies also capitalizing on emerging technology capabilities.
Virtual reality (VR) is another option that can, with a headset or other specialized equipment, immerse users in a 360-degree travel experience without their having to leave their chair. Augmented reality (AR), which enhances displays with overlaid content, is currently used most often for in-destination experiences, including way-finding, information-sharing and even showcasing one destination while in another.
Hardware and investment lacking
Despite those possibilities, use cases of AR and VR in travel and tourism are still limited. While the industry has invested in both technologies, and many predict their future uses will grow, there are many reasons why their use is still relatively nascent in travel.
A big one that is that most American households do not have a VR headset. And many people find that the hardware behind most VR experiences is still bulky and uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. AR, on the other hand, can be utilized using what most people already have in their pockets, a smartphone, something brands are already hoping to capitalize on.
“The idea of VR, and even the metaverse, being a place that you’re going to hang out for a long time is really dependent upon improvement in hardware,” said Norm Rose, Phocuswright analyst and president of Travel Tech Consulting.
Rose described most VR devices as “somewhat cumbersome” to use for more than a short period of time. But a solution could be on the way: Apple’s rumored VR/AR combination headset.
“I think that once they enter the field, that’s going to be a game-changer,” he said. “I’m sure, knowing the kind of design ethos at Apple, that they’re going to try to make it a little bit more comfortable.”
Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said that although “travel as a subject lends itself beautifully to AR and VR,” he cautioned it’s not a technology every brand should attempt to harness. The investment required for a well-executed VR or AR strategy can be considerable, he said, and it only makes sense for brands whose customers value and use technology.
“There’s no shortage of opportunity in the travel industry to take advantage of AR and VR,” Harteveldt said. “What we do have, of course, is a shortage of money. That’s our challenge; and the people necessary to work on the projects.”
Ben Harrell, managing director for the U.S. at Booking
.com, said the OTA is closely watching AR and VR but has yet to launch any initiatives. While Harrell said he believes virtual experiences will eventually play an important role in helping people determine the best destinations for their trips — especially if they have accessibility needs and could benefit from seeing a room’s layout, for instance — he said there isn’t enough content today to facilitate that.
“It’s doable, but it’s hard, and it’s expensive,” Harrell said. “I think everyone is waiting to see the real customer and traveler value unlocked before they make those investments and really lean in.”
A recent Booking.com study found that 44% of U.S. travelers said they would use VR in the year ahead to inspire vacation choices, but 59% said a virtual experience would not be fulfilling enough to check a destination off their bucket list.
“As we see progress here, if we see customers start to really find value and it makes the experience better versus just being an interesting distraction, if it’s really making the experience better, it’s something we’ll jump into pretty aggressively,” Harrell said. “But today, we’re watching very closely and are excited to see how it grows and progresses.”
One brand that has harnessed a form of virtual reality is Celebrity, which launched the Wonderverse in November, positioning it as the “first digital cruise ship experience in the metaverse.”
The term “metaverse” describes a virtual space where people can interact with one another, as well as with virtual spaces or objects, in an immersive way. Users access the Wonderverse, which Celebrity calls a “virtual experience,” via Internet browsers, which makes it more accessible than VR experiences, which require special equipment.
Michael Scheiner, Celebrity’s chief marketing officer, said that the company’s focus on innovation sparked the idea of putting a ship in a digital world.
“More people are experiencing these spaces,” Scheiner said. “The next generations, this is the new norm — but even Gen X and boomers are spending a lot more time playing in this space. The idea really formed from this notion of ‘we’re focused on innovation, and let’s go where our customer is.’”
Since the Wonderverse’s launch, he said, Celebrity has taken away a number of lessons. It wasn’t perfect at launch; for instance, it needs to be better optimized for mobile use. But there is demand, and consumers are spending time in the digital space, not just logging in and quickly exiting.
It’s also reaching a highly desirable market: New-to-cruise.
“Using the metaverse and this digital asset, it’s a great way to really understand the ship, the experience … beyond what someone’s preconceived notions might be,” Scheiner said.
So long as Celebrity continues to see engagement on the platform, he said, the Wonderverse is a product the cruise line will continue to iterate. It offers “endless” opportunities, perhaps one day showcasing the entire fleet or using it as more of a commerce play and less as an experiential space.
“We have a lot of long-term ideas of how this can evolve, but we really want the customer to lead the way,” he said.
Bringing San Diego to N.Y., L.A. and Chicago
Phocuswright’s Rose sees a number of applications for AR in the industry, such as aiding in navigation or providing in-destination information that corresponds to a user’s preferences. For instance, a traveler to Dubai interested in architecture might be able to use a device to go on an architectural tour.
In the near term, Rose predicted, AR use cases will heavily be on smartphones, but in the future this could be augmented by hardware such as lightweight headsets or even contact lenses.
Tripadvisor’s in-house creative studio, Wanderlab, is betting on smartphone-enabled AR for part of its campaign with client the San Diego Tourism Authority.
Adam Ochman, global head of Wanderlab, said the studio is creating three out-of-home physical murals in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The murals are by San Diego artists.
“As people are walking up to the murals and interacting, they’ll scan a QR code and those murals will be brought to life,” he said. “Essentially, you’ll be put in the center of those murals, being able to interact with key parts of the city, key messaging, whatever it might be, as an interactive way to bring the physical to the digital.”
That AR component will complement other parts of the campaign, including more traditional written content pieces and guides.
Ochman said AR and VR are “here to stay. I think it hasn’t had its moment yet, but it’s going to have its moment.” In the meantime, Wanderlab and others will continue to test and learn, he said.
Monetizing a digital experience
Another potential use of VR is enhancing the sales experience, such as enabling consumers to choose particular hotel rooms based on elements like property location and view, Rose said. And while the field is largely experimental right now, some hotels are building “digital twins” that consumers can experience virtually.
One company focused on this application is Palma de Mallorca-based Hotelverse. The Iberostar spinoff focuses on creating digital twins of existing hotels for consumers to explore.
While Hotelverse’s experience is tied to an Internet browser right now, not a VR device, “it gives you a sense of what could be done by providing a rich digital experience,” Rose said.
Alex Barros, head of growth, innovation and fundraising at Hotelverse, said the company is positioned as something of “a bridge” between Web2 and Web3 content. It creates digital versions of hotels that consumers can explore fully on its platform, seeing different prices and experiences. That includes full, 360-degree views of hotel spaces, rooms and the views they offer.
“If you think about the booking experience in hotels, it hasn’t been changed a lot in the last 20 years,” Barros said. “It is not specific, it is not emotional and it is not authentic.”
For instance, a consumer might book a hotel room in Mallorca thinking they’ll have an amazing spot for vacation, then open the window shades and see a view of the parking lot. “The idea is,” he said, “how come our consumers have to put up with hotels giving that level of information?”
Destinations, cinematically filmed
Several companies are focused on showcasing destinations and venues via VR. Travel World VR, a Perillo Tours company, announced its mission in 2019. The company offers production services, then loads 360-degree videos into its app. Travel advisors who download the app can get free cardboard viewers to be used in conjunction with smartphones.
While production of new videos essentially halted with the onset of the pandemic, Travel World VR opened its app to any 360-degree videos that destinations already had, even if the company didn’t produce them. Its library has 60 to 80 videos now, and more than 10,000 travel advisors have downloaded its app, president John Graham said.
And appetite is again growing for videos. Travel World VR recently filmed in the Galapagos with Hurtigruten, and others are interested.
“You can’t have a more perfect category to get people to want to travel,” Graham said.
Feeel VR also offers production services, but its mission is to create an “ecosystem” of venues, destinations and event planners via VR, co-founder and CEO Akiva Reich said. The company offers a dashboard for companies to gain insights into customer behavior and its network of venues and planners.
It provides clients with headsets loaded with properties or events showcasing the styling they do for potential clients, Reich said. In its test market in Israel, Feeel VR has also offered headsets for rent and sends them to consumers’ homes so they can tour destinations.
Reich said Feeel VR’s most important market consists of “gatekeepers,” which includes travel advisors and corporate travel planners. They can use headsets for their own purposes, such as cutting down on time touring venues, as well as with clients. Feeel VR also films venues when events are actually taking place, letting planners more easily showcase their work.
It is decidedly not creating digital twins of properties, Reich said, but using actual filmed footage, a differentiator.
He said Feeel VR solves a number of problems, from access to reliance on images alone to the environmental impact of having to physically visit a number of properties to decide on a wedding venue, for example.
“This is full access,” he said, “and it just really changes everything for the person that’s going to the property.”
Correction: Hotelverse is headquartered in Pallma de Mallorca, Spain, not Madrid as originally stated.