Is virtual reality the future of the hospitality sector?

 —  Article by Laura Agadoni

Is virtual reality the future of the hospitality industry

A helicopter ride over Manhattan could easily be the highlight of a trip to New York – but what if you could soar over the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge at sunset without ever leaving your hotel?

It’s possible with virtual reality (VR). Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, for example, plans to virtually transport potential clients to exotic locations, such as Jokhang Temple in Lhasa or Genghis Khan Square in Ulaanbaatar, all from the comfort of their hotel room through the use of Samsung Gear VR headsets.

Marriott is experimenting with VR by test-driving in select locations what the hotel chain calls “VRoom Service,” where guests can order headsets to watch “VR Postcards” with preloaded VR experiences made to inspire travel, according to eHotelier. Marriott has also marketed this technology by setting up ‘Teleporters’, science-fiction-inspired phone booths, which take consumers to a Marriott Greatroom lobby and then to amazing locales, as part of its ‘Travel Brilliantly’ campaign.

Meanwhile, tour operator Thomas Cook has tested VR in select stores by letting travelers experience vacations, including a complete overview of various resort hotels, in its ‘try before you buy’ campaign.

Just another Google Glass?

Although virtual reality isn’t new—the concept has been around since the 1950s and started to gain momentum in the 1980s and 1990s—it has never really taken off until now.

“A concern people might have is whether this is just another Google Glass,” says Richard Pemberton, hospitality consultant with Avenue9, a division of JLL. He, of course, is referring to the failure of another head-mounted wearable computer, a short-lived media darling. But Pemberton thinks VR has a lot more value than Google Glass because of the type of experience it gives.

He cites Radisson Hotels, which reports that hotels offering a virtual tour are seeing online revenue increases of 135 percent over hotels without one. And BloombergBusiness reports that VR marketing increased revenue for a Thomas Cook New York tour by 190 percent.

It’s difficult to predict the return on investment with virtual reality, however, because there aren’t many case studies. The choices are to “sit back and wait for everyone else to do it, or be an early adopter, possibly stealing the lead from everyone else,” says Pemberton.

The VR experience

With VR, you’re not merely looking at photographs; you’re immersed in an experience. “When you move your head, you see the whole environment that surrounds you,” says Pemberton. Your brain then tricks you into thinking that what you’re seeing is real.

Think of the possibilities for the travel industry. You can take a fantasy trip to Mars through virtual reality, but you can’t afterwards book a real trip there. If you’re willing to settle, however, for travel here on Earth, you can whet your appetite by first going on a virtual tour of a location—such as Trevi Fountain in Rome or The British Museum in London—which you then can turn into the real thing.

If you have any doubts at all as to just how entertaining people find VR, look to some other industries that are adopting it: Virgin Atlantic, which lets potential customers experience what’s it like to fly upper class; Uniworld, which offers a tour of its flagship cruise ship, complete with crew introductions; and even theme parks, such as Avatron Park in Atlanta, Georgia the first virtual-reality-based park of its kind in the United States.

More than just entertainment

Virtual reality, besides providing entertainment, can make the hotel experience less challenging. If you’ve ever checked into a resort that was so large you needed a map or a trip to the concierge desk to aid you in finding the amenities, you would likely appreciate a VR concierge tour instead—possibly in the comfort of your own room—which helps ensure you don’t miss any resort features.

Another way the hospitality industry can use virtual reality is to have headsets available in rooms, suggests Pemberton. If Hard Rock Hotels can receive notoriety by delivering Fender guitars to guestrooms, offering a VR headset can make your hotel stand out as well. While the uses, so far, are mainly video games, it’s too early in this game to see where all this will lead, just as 10 years ago, most people could not envision smartphones.

Competition is rapidly increasing in the technology industry with specialists such as Oculus Rift jostling alongside established names such as Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive Pre and Microsoft HoloLens. With costs already starting to reduce, VR is on the verge of becoming mainstream in the near future.

Virtual reality might not be as revolutionary as the smartphone, but Pemberton says he can certainly see a place for VR in the hotel industry as being complementary to other marketing and booking tools. “I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent as to what the capabilities are yet, and specialized companies are already promoting game changing sales tools,” he says.

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