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Does virtual or augmented reality have a place in hotel marketing?

Expect to hear a lot about virtual and augmented reality in 2017.  At the recent Skift Global Forum, some of the major players in online travel discussed how VR and AR will completely revolutionize the way we travel. Not in a distant future, but in a single generation.

So what will this future look like? Priceline Group Inc.’s Executive Vice President of Group Operations, Maelle Gavet, imagines how augmented reality will play a crucial role in exploring a destination. When standing in a historic building for instance, connected glasses will reveal how the building looked hundreds of years ago.

But beyond altering the experience of travel, VR and AR could also change the way it’s marketed to consumers. In the past, we’ve mentioned this isn’t something hotels necessarily need to worry about investing in, largely due to high costs and extensive development time. However, the technology is slowly becoming more affordable and far easier to use.

Far from being a niche tool for big brands, the coming years may see the majority of hotels harnessing virtual and augmented reality in all kinds of bold and exciting ways.

The difference between VR & AR

Both VR and AR show promise as marketing tools, but there are some important differences between the two.

Augmented reality takes live video footage of the world and blends it with digital content, which users generally view on a smartphone. In contrast, virtual reality is about producing a completely virtual environment and it’s experienced by wearing goggles or a VR helmet like Facebook’s Oculus Rift.

While offering different experiences, both VR and AR have major applications as selling tools. Their combined market value is projected to be a multi-billion dollar market by 2024, and businesses are already starting to see the huge potential they offer. But it’s perhaps in the travel industry that this technology offers a truly revolutionary way for brands to engage with customers.

Cutting-edge content creation

In 2015, Marriott created a 4-D experience using the Oculus Rift headset and a telephone-style booth. Travelers were whisked off to Hawaiian beaches and Tower 42 in London in a multi-sensory environment combining sight and sound with scent release and a vibrating platform.

This immersive destination-based marketing is perhaps one of the most obvious but powerful ways hotels can use virtual reality as a marketing tool. Instead of passively watching a video, virtual environments can recreate the smell of the ocean while strolling along the beach, or mimic a wind-in-your-hair tuk-tuk ride around the streets of Bangkok.

Of course, 4-D environments like this represent the technology at its most cutting-edge, and expensive. For the foreseeable future at least, similar forms of VR will likely remain beyond the reach of many hotels. But that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t other ways to utilize the technology.

A more affordable solution

Google Cardboard virtual reality

Launched in 2015, Google’s VR platform, Jump, is allowing users to produce VR content without huge budgets and technical knowhow. Footage is shot on a rig of 16 GoPro cameras, which can then be stitched together using Google’s software into a 3D film. Once produced, content can then be delivered to Google’s low-cost Cardboard headset (pictured above), available for around $25.

While not matching the image quality or features offered by the likes of Oculus’s Rift, this more affordable platform hints at what VR might be more about. Instead of expensive kit creating high production value content, smaller budgets may lead to a more inventive and subtle use of the technology.

Thinking beyond the brand video

In the travel sector, marketers are already finding new ways to deliver virtual content to a wider audience. This year, UK travel company Thomas Cook created an augmented reality app to enhance the print and online versions of their Sentido hotels brochures.

After downloading the app, users could take an interactive tour of 20 of Thomas Cook’s own-brand hotels, which included footage of rooms, restaurants, bars, pools, gym and wellness facilities along with views and the location of the hotel.

Hotels could also harness this form of augmented reality on their own websites, newsletters, or outdoor advertising campaigns. At the airport, a traveler could hold their smartphone up to a hotel billboard, triggering images of guests sipping cocktails at the hotel pool, or exploring the destination. Guest reviews could also hover around images to add a further persuasive element.

While static booths and VR headsets offer a more immersive travel experience, Thomas Cook’s approach feels much closer to how virtual content may end up being consumed, providing a more cost-effective and scalable model that others may look to replicate.

Could most content end up going social?

Spectacles by Snap

One of the big ways hotels may exploit the potential of VR and AR is through social media. Instead of expensive one-off videos and property tours, hotels could share short video clips through their Facebook or Instagram feed. Although right now, it seems more likely the platform of choice will be Snap.

Just recently, Snap (formerly Snapchat) unveiled the release of Spectacles (pictured above). Retailing at just $129, and only available at pop-up vending machines, these connected sunglasses use a built-in camera with a 115-degree lens—designed to replicate how the human eye sees. Content can be recorded in bursts between 10-30 seconds and gets saved in the Snapchat’s Memories section, ready to be shared at a later point.

Marketers are already using Spectacles to record and share content through social media, and it’s likely that travel brands will follow suit.  While Spectacles don’t create augmented reality, it’s possible to imagine how advanced versions might well do, including the possibility of images being projected onto the actual lens.

A futuristic version of Spectacles with AR technology has all kinds of possibilities. A city hotel, for example, could create a series of videos showing a night on the town for a bachelorette party. Or a beach resort could shoot some poolside perspectives from the POV of a guest enjoying the sun. Attached to that video could be a promotion for happy hour drinks from the bar.

Conceivably, hotels could quickly create and share augmented content like this anywhere around the property—both as a fun way of engaging customers and as a tool for promoting deals and offers. That said, hotels might not end up being the main content creators.

As wearable devices become mainstream, future travelers will inevitably want to capture augmented reality experiences of their trip. It’s likely this will happen spontaneously, but hotels may initially want to drive this behavior. To do this, wearable devices could be left in rooms and guests encouraged to record and share memorable moments at the property and destination, all through their own social channels.

As the technology progresses and becomes more affordable, user-generated content such as Snap videos may well represent the lowest barrier to entry for hotels wishing to utilize AR within their marketing mix.

An inevitable part of travel

The major OTAs believe virtual and augmented reality will redefine the future of travel, including how brands engage with consumers. But while the marketing applications have been obvious for a while now, the potential for mass adoption has been far less so. Yet slowly, things are starting to change.

As competition between new developers heats up, and the cost of hardware components comes down, more affordable versions of AR and VR technology could allow it to be a mainstream in marketing. But access to the technology is just part of the story. In the end, the winners within virtual marketing will be those that create the most relevant and compelling content.

Nancy Huang

Nancy Huang

Nancy is the Senior Marketing Director at Pegasus and expert in strategic communication, brand development, and content marketing. She is an admitted travel junkie and loves finding amazing hotel deals when booking direct. Contact her at nancy.huang@pegs.com.

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