Virtual reality in travel marketing: Passing fad or here to stay?

Virtual reality

Travel agents could create 360° videos on destinations to promote holiday packages. Pic: Aila Images/Shutterstock

AS quickly as technology shifts, so do travel marketing trends.

More hospitality and travel sectors are drawing consumers in with the (still novel) power of virtual reality (VR) – a medium that uses video and sound to create a 3D environment. Users can then use a VR headset to experience a “virtual tour” in its visceral glory.

For instance, a travel agent might create 360° videos of a destination or attraction for visitors to “try before they buy” holiday packages. This way, consumers can have a feel of a destination or experience before committing time and money on a physical trip out.

And because the traditional brick-and-mortar travel agency is phasing out, VR as a marketing tool could well be used as bait for consumers to wander into a physical store.

Selling an experience or destination

Flight Centre, a retail travel outlet headquartered in Brisbane, jumped on using VR as a marketing tool and curated VR projects to sell travel experiences to consumers.

The project was an industry-first in Asia Pacific, and saw consumers ooh-ing and ahh-ing to videos through in-store VR headsets.

Flight Centre managing director Suyin Lee told Channel News Asia, “[It’s a nice way for consumers] to get some inspiration. We can do a lot with it in terms of virtual tours, and [to test] new experiences that perhaps we haven’t yet introduced in the market.”

The company behind these videos is Singapore-based TaKanto Virtual Reality, a leading VR company that has produced various 360° videos that include underwater, aerial and advanced footage.

TaKanto has served as VR vendor for brands such as Tourism Queensland and AirAsia X to create 360° videos.

In the case of the former, the clips cover locations such as Gold Coast, Cairns, Fraser Island and Sunshine Coast, and are injected with advanced footage that showcase unique experiences such as skydiving, helicopter rides, and underwater scouring.

For AirAsia X, 360° footage of aircraft as well as flight attendants were uploaded on YouTube and Facebook, garnering hundreds of thousands views and increased interest for the airline.

TaKanto founder and managing director Ariel Talbi told Travel Wire Asia, “With the right sales person, the VR experience can complement the sales cycle and help ‘open users’ minds’ to new destinations.”

SEE ALSO: More Chinese expect virtual reality experiences in theme parks

VR could also be used a tool to shed light on under-the-radar destinations and experiences for curious holidaymakers.

For instance, TaKanto worked on a Gold Coast project that introduced lesser-known areas such as the Night Quarter Market and Tamborine Country Market.

Talbi said, “[The videos] helped changed the perception [the destination was] only suitable for surfers and action-seekers.”

Skift predicted once VR becomes the norm, the introduction of VR rooms – where clients can wander as they watch 360° videos – to encourage speedy bookings.

As printed brochures and picture-heavy websites don’t cut it anymore, it is best agents, tourism board, airlines, and other travel-related products pay attention to the rise of VR or risk being left behind.

Shift in in-flight entertainment

Another great example of VR usage is for in-flight entertainment, a practice pioneered by Qantas in 2015.

The airline tested the technology on select A380 services to deliver passengers in-flight 3D experiences such as walking through city streets in one of the airline’s destinations, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the land and sea below, or simply watching a blockbuster to while away time.

Qantas senior advisor of Entertainment James Price said, “We need to create travel inspiration, and virtual reality is a great way of expressing an airline’s destinations.”

Giving VR headsets a run for its money is SkyLights Theater, an in-flight entertainment system with immersive cinema glasses for 2D and 3D film viewing. At the moment, the gear is not equipped to feed 360° video content.

Unlike VR headsets, the Skylights equipment are said to be “light and comfortable”. The UK’s XL Airways was the first airline to try out the technology with more airlines reported showing interest.

According to SkyLights, 95 percent of XL Airways passengers who tested the device said they were satisfied and just over half of testers said they would consider buying a SkyLights Theater device for personal use outside the aircraft.

However, until the SkyLights device introduces 360° video compatibility, VR headsets are still in the competitive game of in-flight entertainment.

Will 360° videos become mainstream?

As much as 360° is an excellent way to get consumers immersed in an experience, not everyone is convinced.

According to a report on Skift, only a small percentage of consumers have interacted with 360° travel videos, possibly owing to the novelty of the concept.

Destination British Columbia managing editor Janice Fraser told the publication 360° videos stray from the conventional model of a video narrative.

She said, “How do you build a story that has a beginning, middle and end? What is the action and where is it on screen?”

On top of that, some tourism boards are worried about audiences taking charge of a video’s narratives as opposed to a conventional arc typically decided upon by a brand.

The Skift report said, “Tourism boards and convention bureaus see potential in these videos, but are still learning how to best present them to travelers.”

While these challenges exist, awareness of 360° videos is rapidly increasing through the good work of companies like TaKanto.

As a bonus, companies like Samsung are also churning out affordable ranges of VR headsets, which can only be seen as good news for tourism boards, airlines, and hospitality brands.

Talbi predicts the VR trend in travel marketing will last a while. “We believe it will become an industry-standard within 2-3 years and will start replacing the old-fashioned brochures,” he said.

However, he stressed VR experiences don’t necessarily act as a substitute for real-life travel.

He said, “In 15 to 20 years, it could get to a point where people will actually go on VR vacations as we now see the evolvement (sic) of 360 audio and ‘VR smell’ generator.

“The one thing that cannot be replaced is the true sense of freedom, human interaction and exploration when you actually travel, so I don’t think it will ever completely replace the real thing.”