Will Virtual Reality Change Travel?

03/08/2016 16:43 | Updated 03 August 2016

As couples spill out of New York's City Hall, recently newly wedded, they are greeted by a camera crew and a Marriott hotel representative ready to whisk them away to the "honeymoon of their dreams" in Hawaii or London. Unable to hide a slight look of disappointment, the couples instead are handed a Samsung Gear VR headset and asked to step inside their virtual destinations.

Despite not actually heading to these honeymoon hotspots, the couples can be seen in this promotion for Marriott's new VR platform actually embracing the experience of being transported to a different location, and seem involved in the experience in a way that photos or videos cannot. It is this crucial difference which is getting the industry excited at the possibilities of virtual reality.

Far removed from the days of holiday brochures, with three or four images of a hotel as the only guide to a two weeks stay, customer's demands for information regarding their accommodation is growing forever more ravenous. Many of the big hotel providers are now betting big on VR experiences developing trust with the consumer for what is often a big ticket item of an individual's yearly spend.

Best Western Hotels are moving fast to have virtual reality at the centre of their new digital transformation, aiming to allow customers to explore all of their hotels. Similarly, luxury chain Shangri-La "has rolled out Samsung Gear VR headsets across all Global Sales Offices and produced immersive 360-degree videos for over a quarter of its 94 hotels and resorts." Nearly half of the hotel portfolio will have VR videos available by January, with full roll out to be completed in 2016, using VR as their primary sales method.

It is not just hotel chains looking to take advantage of the new technology in the travel industry. Industry stalwarts Thomas Cook are developing a "Try Before You Fly" proposition in partnership with Visualise, utilising 360 video to help customers experience everything from hotels to snorkelling excursions in Sharm-El-Sheik. Airbnb is also beginning to help its hosts to utilise the falling cost of 360 video cameras to produce experiences for potential guests - at the demand of the hosts themselves, following a number of requests to be able to offer this on listings.

However, scepticism from commentators still surrounds the extent to which this will be a fad technology that will have no significant impact on the industry. Forbes writer Jay McGregor commented "I've long thought that VR would end up as the fad-that-never-was. It's destined for an ignominious future where unscrupulous theme parks try and palm off a budget VR experience as some sort of futuristic roller coaster for a small fortune."

But the data reflects the fact that VR is having a positive impact for businesses in compelling customers to purchase more. Bloomberg Business reports that VR marketing increased revenue for a Thomas Cook New York tour by 190 percent. Whether this is a "first mover advantage" that will be whittled away to zero as more companies adopt is yet to be discovered.

The success of VR in the travel industry will not depend on delivering an experience, but in providing inspiration. Rather than looking at virtual reality experiences available, the starting point should be the exceptional inspiration of the numerous travel blogs and accounts on Instagram and Youtube that deliver the yearning desire to drop everything and head away. If companies can help to deliver this cinematic experience rather than walking round a bland hotel room, virtual reality could change the travel industry forever and prove the naysayers wrong.