Virtual reality is on the verge of transforming the way we do business. In the next year, this new technology is expected to see mass adoption, and it will come with a wave of new products, ideas, and methods of communicating.
For hoteliers, virtual reality presents a new platform for engaging with current and potential guests, and marketing the best you have to offer in a fresh way. The brand marketers with the strongest sense of the tech will be the ones whose message is heard loud and clear.
But where do smart hoteliers start with this emerging tech. Below is everything hoteliers need to know to about virtual reality, from its early history to how top businesses and institutions are using this technology.
Virtual Reality—A Brief Primer
The phrases “virtual reality” or “immersive multimedia” are generally catch-all terms for software and hardware that enable interaction with a simulated, three-dimensional environment, in real-time. This is achieved through input devices like headsets, various controllers such as traditional video game controllers, wands, or a combination of the two.
These devices track movements and translate them into gestures and actions within the virtual environment. At the same time, the system provides sensory feedback (primarily sight and sound, but sometimes touch).
Through low latency and a variety of sensory feedback, the system gives the user a feeling of immersion, of being physically present inside the virtual world. In this way, a user might feel as if they are actually inside a video game, or a potential traveler might feel as if they were actually present at a destination or hotel.
Virtual reality was first conceived by science fiction writers as much as seven decades ago, but the term as we know it was popularized in the ‘80s by VPL Research, which developed and sold the first VR technology. There was more commercial appeal in developing the Internet, however, and the fledgling industry turned its focus toward equipment for flight simulators, military training, medical, and auto design.
The gaming industry kept interest in virtual reality alive through the ‘90s and early 2000s, with companies like Sega and Nintendo marketing VR headsets for home consoles and in arcades. But the technology came back into the limelight a few years ago, when Oculus VR announced the development of their first product, the Rift (scheduled for mass release in 2016).
Oculus was able to raise more than $2.4 million through crowdfunding (the first million came in less than 36 hours), and the writing was on the wall—in February of last year, Facebook acquired the company for $2 billion.
With Facebook’s show of confidence in the emerging technology, other tech giants such as Samsung and HTC have rushed to get their own VR platforms to market to take advantage of the growing interest. And now, researchers are predicting that device sales will reach 14 million units next year, and possibly more than 38 million units by 2020.
Virtual Reality Marketing
In the meantime, forward thinkers in the marketing industry have been brainstorming how to use the technology to support their brands. The immersive nature of VR can be a natural way of encouraging audience participation and engagement, along with convincing them to visit a location in person.
“Virtual reality allows marketers to deliver stories and richer content experiences that traditional forms of advertising can’t match,” Don Anderson, managing director of We Are Social Singapore, told Campaign US.
One brand that’s focused on attracting virtual customers to brick-and-mortar locations is The North Face. Earlier this year, the outdoor product company cleared some space in its Manhattan location where shoppers could suit up in VR gear, before going on a virtual base-jump. The idea? Get customers excited about the great outdoors again—and by the way, here’s the gear you’ll need on your trip.
Another brand that is providing in-store experience is Toms. The shoe company specializes in one-to-one marketing. For every pair of shoes a shopper buys, the company donates another pair to people in need.
Earlier this month the shoe company unveiled a VR experience at its flagship store in Venice Beach, California, that shows shoppers what it’s like to go on a shoe-giving trip.
Toms founder Blake Mycoskie said his company created the experience based on customer requests.
“Now, with VR, we can take them to Peru…and when they take the headset off, your whole world is now upside down,” Mycoskie told USA Today.
Additionally, Mycoskie said that VR is a major differentiator.
“We have an experience that is so visceral and so intense that customers aren’t having with our competitors,” Mycoskie said. “The secret will come out. But I like having a first-mover advantage right now.”
For fitness enthusiasts, Zumba partnered with YouVisit and released a 360-degree VR exercise video in June. The video is led by company co-founder Alberto Perez, and shows him leading a three-and-a-half-minute exercise class, shot in such a way that viewers can either participate in the routine, or practice teaching a class.
The marketing method not only has appeal for beginners and the experienced Zumba practitioners, but it provides a personal-feeling interaction with one of the leading voices of the company—something younger consumers are demanding more frequently.
“VR is a great way to show people what the Zumba experience is like,” Alberto Perlman, CEO of Zumba told Fortune. “A lot of people don’t know what it’s like to be in a Zumba class, and you can only see so much in 2D.”
Tourism in the Virtual World
For the tourism and hotel industries, virtual reality offers an attractive way to put potential guests inside their walls, and beyond.
Last summer, Marriott International took advantage of the technology with its “Travel Brilliantly” campaign. As part of the campaign, the hotel group unveiled large booths at its New York City location (called “Teleporters”) where guests could virtually climb to the top of London’s Tower 42, or walk the beaches of Hawaii. Along with sight and sound, the user was immersed with scents, heat, and mist on their faces.
More recently, the company placed VR headsets in two of its locations (New York Marriott Marquis and the London Marriot Park Lane) as part of an ongoing test. The program, called “VRoom Service” allows guests to order a VR headset to their rooms for 24 hours. The device comes loaded with three pieces on content, including a woman visiting Chile, a woman exploring Rwanda, and a man traveling Beijing.
Michael Dail, vice president of Marriott Hotels brand marketing, told Wired his company hopes people will become inspired by the experience and decide to book a trip. He added that another goal of the campaign was to help the hotel group build credibility with younger, often more tech-savvy, travelers.
While Marriott is using VR to showcase destinations, Ultimate Jet Vacations (UJV), a tour operator in Miami, Florida, is using the technology to grow its business and help hotels better market their properties.
Steven Kadoch, a managing partner at UJV, told YouVisit he immediately saw virtual reality’s potential as a sales tool and “innovative way to present hotels to clients.”
“We’re constantly looking for tools and ideas that can help our travel partners sell themselves better,” Kadoch said.
Another travel company that’s backed VR is Thomas Cook. The tour operator has placed Samsung Gear VR headsets in 10 of its brick-and-mortar stores in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium. Customers can experience standing on a balcony of a Santorini hotel and a helicopter ride above Manhattan. Additionally, the company said Google Cardboards will be available in future mail order catalogs.
While some tourism brands are focused on showcasing what’s inside the hotel walls, others are expanding the outside—Destination British Columbia’s “The Wild Within” aims to give visitors a virtual reality tour of their entire region, taking them on a 360-degree tour of the Broughton Archipelago and the Great Bear Rainforest.
Recently, Maya Lange, Destination BC’s vice president of global marketing, said the experience generated 65 million media impressions.
What’s on the Horizon?
While the full extent of its utility has yet to be seen, it appears that virtual reality is only going to become more pervasive in the coming years. The consumer version of the Rift is scheduled for release in the first fiscal quarter of 2016; both Samsung and HTC are shooting for this coming holiday season to launch their VR products, and other devices may be on shelves even sooner than that.
The takeaway from this is that a sizeable portion of potential customers will be walking around with their own VR systems, making campaigns like North Face’s less effective. In the same way that mobile devices have become a given, VR messaging could potentially become the primary means of reaching an audience.
“Head mounted displays are about to really hit the mainstream. They’re going to get cheaper,” SapientNitro Global Initiative Lead Adrian Slobin told Ad Age. “They’re going to be given away with cell phone contracts. It will pretty soon just be one more piece of gear in your life. Where consumers are, brands are going to go.”
And just like with mobile technology, hoteliers interested in reaching potential guests will need to find a way to make their message heard over the roar of the crowd. Concepts that are alluring one day will become commonplace the next, and those who can craft original, eye-catching content will be the voices that are heard.
To learn how virtual reality can drive results for your hotel, contact YouVisit today.
A version of this article originally appeared in Hotel Business Review.