Why the travel industry needs virtual reality: Ben Smith CEO, Laduma
We live in a world that is overflowing with beauty, charm, variety and adventure.
The lure of experiencing new places, people and cultures exists not only because of the enriching affect it has on our soul but because of the way that it opens our eyes.
Virtual Reality and the way it applies to travel and tourism is hugely exciting but it should not ever expect to replace the real thing. Let’s make that clear from the off.
This is, instead, about how VR/AR can augment and improve the joy that travel brings us all. How it can inspire and excite us to try new things, visit new places.
It was the great American writer Henry Miller who wrote: “one’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things”. And, of course, we see ourselves differently when we visit new places. We feel and think differently. We become different people.
One thing that has not changed is that, for most of us, holidays remain the third biggest discretionary spend behind our homes and our cars. And in many cases, we do it, or at least want to, at least once a year. And it is, just as with the other two, predominantly an emotional decision. No wonder tourism is a $7.6 trillion industry
But what has changed is the way we book. In 2016, 76% of us booked our travel or holiday online. Some 13% of those bookings were made on our smart phones. So where does VR fit in? In a 2017 report by the UK government, three key applications were cited. 1) Training of staff. 2) Advertising and 3) to excite and enthuse travellers.
It is the third strand I want to focus on in this piece – what VR can do to inspire.
We fall in love with the idea of places, we feel the pull of an image in a brochure or on a website, or a vision of a destination and it forces us to part with more money than we really want to. Consider that for a moment, it’s a hugely powerful force – falling in love with the idea of a place before we get there. So where do VR/AR come into play? Well, in lots of ways – but here is the kicker – only if it is really thought through very carefully. And only if the customer is put at the heart of the concept.
We have seen and are continuing to see many of the world’s leading travel brands experimenting VR. Airlines, travel companies, hotel groups and destinations have all tried VR on for size. The result varies markedly depending on the content you watch.
The solution would appear to be obvious – showing customers a preview of what awaits at their destination to solidify their bond with the place and then close a sale.
After all, TripAdvisor has become so successful because we seek that certainty in the opinions, and unpolished images, of those travellers who have gone before them. Even if they might have wildly different standards to your own.
VR could and is already providing the chance for holiday makers to ‘visit’ their destination in a headset, look at the rooms, pool area, beach and restaurants as if they are already there. Which is a first step in the use of this technology.
But the journey has some way to go. VR can and must do so much more than simply become a 360 gallery of images. The key with VR is the feeling of being present. So the opportunity is not just to present the facts, but it must also tap into their emotions. That is why people buy, that’s why people fall in love with places. Not because they see pictures in a brochure but because they imagine themselves in that pool, or on that beach with a cocktail. VR must be part of that process by tapping that emotion.
Another consideration is trust. Do buyers trust what they see any more? Trust polished images and fancy promos? Maybe that is fading slightly. But with VR there is an opportunity to win some of that back. According to leading experts in the field, when customers use more than one sense, their trust in what they are seeing is heightened. You could argue in VR that users see, hear and potentially even feel present.
But those are just two facets. The third key part of this is that VR must become a seamless part of the buying process. When it comes to booking holidays we are ruthless. The average time a user will wait for a page to load is between 0.5 and 2 seconds. People will not return to a website that took more than 4 seconds to load.
Pretty astonishing but also understandable. We are time poor as a population.
Interestingly, though, buyers do become more patient when faced with level of interactivity – videos and illustrations. Anything where the goal is to provide the maximum amount of information in a short space of time. VR does just that.
Expedia are paying attention, having announced their intention to move into interactive VR, enabling the user to choose their route around a destination, open the doors, step out on the balcony, visit the restaurant. And yet to really make VR and travel work, we have to go much further and reach for the buyer’s emotions.
We have developed touch screen technology that allows travel companies to install VR playback on their in-store tablets, so they can launch VR content in a headset with their existing hardware. We can also then allow users to buy within the VR space. Both are a way of making the process much user friendly and straightforward.
So let’s take a live example of both. Emotion and the buying process. How would that look? Well, we have touched upon pleasure but what about pain. What are our pain points on holiday? Cramped airplane seats? Tick. And this is the next key point. Where VR can solve a specific problem and, in turn, provide a measurable solution, the chance of success is significantly higher. So let’s go with a cramped plane seat.
Maybe a travel company has just revamped its fleet and included a premium cabin. Now, perhaps sales of those seats are not where the company would want them to be because travellers aren’t seeing the benefit to them for the cost involved – a clear and identifiable problem. So, at the point of sale, or even as late in the process as the airport, that airline could first give the traveller a chance to put on a headset and sample their seat on the plane in economy – pain. A long journey, a small space.
Then show the customer how they could spend the next eight hours. Let their mind trick them into feeling the extra space, additional legroom, see the better food and drink, and realise they will have more entertainment options. At that point, the opportunity to up-sell is significant and the emotions needed to make that decision, despite the financial realities, are high. And that’s just one example.
The work we are already doing at Laduma with luxury travel and hotel companies follow the same pattern. First up, we need to identify a problem that we can solve with our content. Then we create a concept that will not only do just that, but will also provide a way for our client to work out if their investment has been worthwhile. Because while it is nice to land big deals with clients and brands, one-offs are disappointing for everyone concerned. We don’t want anyone to think their spend with us was wasted. We want them to see the value, see how VR/AR fits in as part of their wider sales or marketing strategy and feel reassured. Not disappointed.
To misquote Lao Tzu, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
VR is at the very start of a long journey.
The destination may be unclear. But it is on its way.