Photo Credit: Photo illustration by Thomas R Lechleiter

Virtual realitycheck

January 20, 2016

When it comes to travel, VR is the next best thing to actually being there. And the technology just might be the next big thing in travel marketing.

Mount your headsets and get ready. Virtual reality (VR) is fast-tracking its way to possibly reinventing the way travel is marketed and sold.

The highly engaging, interactive VR environments that are already taking the tech and gaming industries by storm offer the travel industry an entirely new platform for selling travel as the technology is rapidly becoming more accessible to the masses.

"The travel industry is going to be one of the industries that will be most impacted by the onset of virtual reality," said Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit, which helps create and distribute VR video content for various companies, including numerous travel suppliers such as Carnival Cruise Line and destination marketing organizations.

"How do you give somebody a sense of what it's really like to be somewhere without principally being there?" Mandelbaum said. "Why do people go on TripAdvisor? Because they want to get a better feel for the place. We see [VR] as a very natural evolution that has taken place [in travel marketing], from text to photos to videos to virtual tours to virtual reality. The main thing that makes the virtual experiences unique is that they're interactive. That interactivity leads to immersion, and that immersion leads to conversion."

YouVisit was among the growing number of VR vendors showcasing their products at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, where VR content creators and hardware manufacturers were inundated with attendees hoping to experience the latest in VR technologies.

An attendee checks out the YouVisit VR experiences at the Consumer Electronics Show.
An attendee checks out the YouVisit VR experiences at the Consumer Electronics Show. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

From the much-buzzed-about, Facebook-owned Oculus to the impressive upstart HTC Vive, from companies selling live-event VR capabilities to outfits hawking the 360-degree cameras and contraptions necessary to create VR video content, the VR arena was where the action was at CES. And according to industry insiders, tuned-in travel companies should be just as amped about the exploding technology.

Sean Whitmore, a senior analyst for San Francisco-based VR intelligence gathering and consulting firm Greenlight VR, said, "We're seeing strong interest by Generation Z [people currently ages 10 to 17], who are likely to be early adopters of virtual reality-enabled headsets for travel-based experiences. However, as we've seen in the data for our upcoming 2016 Virtual Reality Consumer Report, Baby Boomers [people ages 51 and up] are also very interested in the concept of experiencing travel destinations through virtual reality, with 38% saying they are likely to try it."

According to Whitmore, travel companies would be smart to start experimenting with different kinds of VR marketing efforts in order to see what works best for them and to begin to get a better sense of the level of investment required and what the potential returns will be on that investment.

"It's important to recognize that the industry is in the early days of VR as a medium for brand advertising, and as such, measurability remains a challenge," Whitmore said. "Despite the challenge of measurability, some marketers are achieving impressive organic reach and millions of earned media impressions, while consumers are reacting very positively."


A VR primer

First, it's important to define VR, because even within the VR world there are some nuances.

According to industry experts, true VR constitutes an eye-covering headset that closes the viewer off to the "outside world" so that they can be completely immersed in the environment. The experience is rounded out by headphones (either attached to the headset or not) and some kind of controllers that allow for interactivity, including the ability to grab onto, push and pull on, shoot at and do just about anything else with or to elements of the environment.

More advanced VR technologies will also sense body movement, enabling the user to walk and move around within the environment.  

People waited as long as two hours to experience Oculus Rift at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
People waited as long as two hours to experience Oculus Rift at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

Based on that description, it's not hard to understand why the gaming industry has pounced most fervently onto the potential that VR represents. And while this high-tech, high-priced experience (during CES, Oculus announced that its Oculus Rift headset will retail for $599) might seem a bit more costly than some in the travel industry can or want to invest in, there are many other, more attainable forms of VR experiences.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the high price tag of top-end VR headsets, many more affordable alternatives are already cropping up on the market. The Samsung Gear VR headset, which works with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone and is powered by Oculus, retails for $100. And there are headsets as cheap as $12; cardboard viewers that work with smartphones, such as Google's cardboard VR kit; and VR viewing glasses that clip onto a smartphone (French company Homido makes a pair that retails for $15). VR can even be experienced by simply using a smartphone or tablet without any kind of viewing device.

VR purists will argue that some of this cheaper VR hardware doesn't constitute true VR because you're no longer fully immersed, not to mention that image quality traditionally decreases with price. But for the travel industry's purposes, some of these options are much more accessible and will make it much easier to create a client interface.

But what's perhaps as important if not more important than the hardware is the content. Generally, there are two types of VR environments: computer-generated environments, which are popular in the gaming world because they enable developers to create the fantastical experiences the gaming industry thrives on; and real-world video environments, which constitute 360-degree, spherical video images. Movement and interactivity are also important differentiators between VR and its predecessor, the 360-degree tour. While 360-degree tours of a space enable the viewer to spin all the way around in a room, true VR should enable the viewer to also look up and down (hence the spherical element) and ultimately move through the environment, whether that involves actual movement of the body or using commands on a control device.

Also, when talking about VR images, those are either moving video images, which are definitely more impressive and engaging, or 360-degree, spherical photos that simply enable the viewer to look all around them at a still image.

For the travel industry, there has been and likely will continue to be a tendency toward creating real-world video VR content in order to showcase the destinations and products travel companies sell, but there's also a case to be made for realistic, computer-generated environments.

Regardless of the environment, travel companies and travel sellers will have to decide whether they want to develop content in-house, have customized VR content created for them by a third party or simply tap into the growing database of existing content. 

Creating VR content in-house might seem like an overwhelming endeavor, but it shouldn't be ruled out. Numerous companies are already rolling out 360-degree cameras and rigs to accommodate DIYers. At CES, French company Giroptic was showcasing its palm-size 360-degree camera, and Olean, N.Y.-based 360Heros has created a series of devices in which you place multiple GoPro cameras to capture a complete spherical environment. Once the video is shot, it can either be pieced together in-house (360Heros also sells editing software) or outsourced for editing.

If that seems a bit ambitious, plenty of companies are willing to develop VR content for clients -- at a cost, of course. VR creation services can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, according to YouVisit's Mandelbaum, who said his VR packages trend toward the cheaper end of that scale.

But increasingly there is more VR content being made available for free as companies either make the content they've created for other clients available to all, or look to showcase large libraries of content in order to better sell the hardware, software or whatever aspect of the VR experience they are selling.

While for the time being a lot of that content is still geared toward the gaming space, it's only a matter of time before more of it will be travel-focused. San Francisco-based Ascape, for example, has already compiled dozens of VR travel videos on its app that can be quickly accessed from any smartphone.

Travel industry trailblazers

While VR is new to many, numerous travel companies have already embraced VR in a variety of ways.

This past fall, Marriott partnered with Samsung to create VRoom Service, an experience that was made available at the New York Marriott Marquis and London Marriott Park Lane for two weeks. Guests could order virtual reality experiences to their rooms by calling a dedicated VRoom Service extension or using Marriott's Mobile Request app to order a Samsung Gear VR headset and headphones.

The headsets could be used to access three VR postcards of the Chilean Andes, Beijing or of an African village. In each experience, they encountered a traveler who told the viewer their personal story of why they travel and how it inspires them.    

"VR allowed our guests to immerse themselves in other travelers' real, personal experiences traveling to destinations around the world and served as a storytelling tool," said Michael Dail, vice president of global brand marketing for Marriott Hotels.

"Nothing will ever really be able to replace the experience of actually traveling to a particular destination, but VR is an excellent way to give next-generation travelers a taste of a destination."

Numerous travel companies have been experimenting with VR within the last year, including Carnival Cruise Line, which partnered with YouVisit to create VR videos that feature the company's vessels as well as Carnival experiences on and off ship.

Last year, the U.K. outpost for the youth travel agency STA Travel invested in three Samsung Gear VR headsets and took them to trade shows and on sales calls to "help bring the experience alive," said Tim Fryer, U.K. product and marketing director for STA. The company partnered with Brand USA to create some content, including footage from California, New York, Las Vegas and the national parks. The U.K. office has said it plans to buy 20 additional headsets this year.

VR and travel actually have a history that dates back to the last century. Back in 1998, Disney was far ahead of the VR curve when it opened DisneyQuest, an indoor theme park comprising five stories of VR and arcade-like games, located in what is now Disney Springs at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

The idea was to construct similar indoor, VR-driven theme parks in multiple cities throughout the country. A DisneyQuest was opened in Chicago in 1999 but closed two years later when revenues fell flat. A planned Philadelphia location was halted before it was ever finished.

Paradoxically, Disney recently announced that DisneyQuest in Orlando will close this year, just as VR is finally taking off everywhere else.

Disney may have simply found itself too far ahead of the curve, but elsewhere in the travel industry, the excitement is palpable.  

"This is an already extremely valuable marketing product in the travel arena," said Evan McElligott, owner of Portland, Maine-based Longer Vacations. McElligott owns a VR headset and is already seeing the potential that VR represents for his retail business.

There are "endless possibilities," he said, adding that VR is "one of the greatest interactive products available to us as travel sellers. The sky is the limit. Yet it will never replace the experience of actually being there. It's just enough to tease everyone."

Added McElligott, "As this gets more mainstream -- and it will happen quickly -- the travel experience will be one of the first big focus areas. ... This is not going away, and I for one couldn't be more excited."

MORE: Read a non-techie's take on her exeriences at CES here.