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At a Virtual Tipping Point (Again)

Chris Davidson

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…more specifically, at the 2009 Mountain Travel Symposium in Keystone, Colorado…I made a conference presentation announcing we were at a tipping point for mobile technology in the travel business. Forces were converging, I argued, and the impact would be mobile-first strategies would dominate industry marketing in the very near future. The recently introduced iPhone had finally delivered on the promise of a seamless, intuitive user experience for surfing the web on a mobile device. Network speeds had improved so that sites no longer loaded at the speed of a tortoise, but rather much more similar to how pages loaded on desktops. And, the proliferation of available content, much of which came via Apple’s new App Store, gave people valuable new ways to use their mobile devices.

And, based on what’s been happening these past several years since, the prediction has certainly proved accurate. According to our annual Portrait of American Travelers®research study, leisure travelers’ use of smartphones to access the Internet increased from 21% in 2009 to 71% in 2016. Apple’s iPad arrived soon thereafter, and the percentage of travelers accessing the web using tablets subsequently increased from 7% in 2011 to 50% in 2016. Mobile travel bookings continue to increase rapidly, as do the number of people who opt exclusively for a mobile device in lieu of purchasing a desktop computer. We are clearly, and squarely, in The Mobile Era.

In the midst of this evolution, we are quickly arriving at another such tipping point that will have a massive impact on our industry. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies are poised to fundamentally alter the state of affairs in hospitality, travel, and tourism marketing. Here are four examples of how I envision these technologies coming to life for travelers.

  1. Destination Sampling(VR) – People love to dream about the places they’ll visit and the things they’ll see and do on vacation. In our recent Portrait of American Travelers®studies, we’ve seen video content skyrocket in importance for travelers seeking information about potential destinations to visit. VR has the opportunity to transport people to destinations around the world in a moment’s time, and then immerse them in amazing virtual worlds within their destinations of interest. For example, the National Park Service could build a library of VR content that takes people rock climbing up Yosemite’s Half Dome granite wall, rafting down the Colorado River, or face-to-face with a herd of bison in Yellowstone. These virtual experiences will only whet travelers’ appetites for experiencing these places in person.
  2. In-Market 4D Attractions (VR) – Earlier this year, Six Flags introduced several new VR roller coaster experiences in its parks throughout the U.S. Riders experience immersive, 360-degree content (e.g. Spider-Man swooping from building to building in a virtual world) by wearing VR headsets that are synced to the movements of the coaster. These coasters offer guests a completely new experience without the parks incurring the cost of constructing a completely new ride. Plus, the content can be changed or updated frequently, and even offers riders the potential to choose their own adventure during the ride by focusing on different “options” presented in the headsets.
  3. Interactive Wayfinding (AR) – Augmented Reality combines the real and virtual worlds by overlaying virtual content on the real world when viewed through a mobile device’s camera. For example, imagine you’re skiing and lose track of what trail you’re on and how to get to the next lift. With an AR app, you will be able to see what trail you’re on, get directions on where to go to get to the next lift, access information on where to stop for lunch, and even view beacons showing you where your friends and family are skiing on the mountain. These new wayfinding tools will ultimately improve the in-destination experience.
  4. Social Augmentation (AR) – Imagine walking down Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, wondering about the best place to eat dinner. When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you see various flags that appear as you point the camera at restaurants in the area. These flags are reviews posted by people in your social network, trusted friends and family members who have previously eaten at the various restaurants you’re seeing and who have posted reviews of their experiences. These restaurants, attractions, or cultural exhibits could also provide their own AR flags that would give travelers information such as dining specials, coupons, or nightly entertainment. And it could allow people to check wait times, or even book tickets or reservations.

These examples just scratch the surface of how the travel industry will apply VR and AR technology in the years ahead. But, clearly we are not there yet. Similar to mobile in the early 2000s, VR and AR face significant barriers to mass-market adoption in three key areas. First, the hardware (e.g. headsets) remains relatively expensive and the user experience fairly unexciting. Second, today’s wifi availability is typically limited to inside (or near) wired buildings and access is often restricted or limited to those who pay for it. And third, largely because of these first two factors, the content currently available for VR and AR is pretty meager. However, all of these barriers are quickly dissipating, and the opportunities to leverage these technologies for travel marketing will rapidly emerge.

As video game systems and, eventually, home theaters start to incorporate VR technology, consumer adoption of quality headsets will accelerate. For now, rudimentary hardware like Google Cardboard allows consumers a low-cost way to experience the growing library of content being developed by leading-edge destinations like Destination British Columbia and the Las Vegas CVA.

These new technologies will have such an impact in part because of their broad application across the entire travel continuum. Compelling new content will help destinations, resorts, and attractions cultivate their brands through immersive, VR storytelling at the Ideas and Inspiration stage of travel planning. AR info-tagging and social augmentation will significantly improve the in-destination experience, increasing the chances that the destination will be recommended to friends and family members. And, fascinating VR experiences – doled out every month or so to a database of past visitors – will create compelling new reasons for past visitors to maintain long-term relationships with destination marketers. If, for example, you visited Cleveland in the past, and then every month you started to receive notifications about new VR videos available to download (e.g.. sitting onstage at the Republican National Convention; going inside the Cavs’ huddle in the NBA Finals; or sitting first-chair violin at a performance of Cleveland’s world-famous Symphony Orchestra), you would probably be much more likely to stay engaged.

As I look to the future of travel industry marketing, I envision an exciting new world of virtual and augmented content to complement the real-world experiences of today. The new tipping point is upon us, and this brave new world is not nearly as far out as people may think.

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