Can Virtual Reality Produce Real Travel Sales?

by Richard D'Ambrosio

A man wearing VR headset called HTC Vive. Photo: Maurizio Pesce.

Looking for a competitive edge, pioneering destinations and travel industry suppliers are utilizing virtual reality to create compelling sales tools that help increase sales and profits.

Companies like YouVisit are producing 3D, 360-degree views of real-world surroundings for a variety of travel destinations, cruises, and hotels, helping those organizations market themselves to prospective travelers.

“We’re changing the way travel suppliers and agents use virtual reality,” said Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and co-founder of YouVisit. His company has been developing virtual-reality experiences for more than six years, including work for Alaska, Croatia, and Carnival Cruises. To create a VR film, videographers capture images from all angles. The footage is then digitally stitched together to create the final “immersive” product. 

In a travel marketplace saturated with competing advertising and marketing, utilizing technology to grab a prospective client’s attention can be a major differentiator, and help close a sale, Mandelbaum says. Travelers tend to think that “if a supplier is on the cutting edge of technology, it will offer a cutting-edge travel experience.”

Ultimate Jet Vacations (UJV)—a boutique Miami tour operator —is using virtual reality experiences produced by YouVisit to grow its business and help hotels market their properties, “We find that it’s a unique and fun way to promote our properties. Agents, young and old, have fun with it and remember the experience,” said managing partner Steven Kadoch. 

For Ultimate Jet, YouVisit booked camera crews to travel to one of their top suppliers, an upscale resort on the French Riviera. Kadoch said he is working on building a portfolio of VR tours for his top-selling resorts. “Then, when we visit our travel agency partners, we take a VR headset and ask them: ‘Have you been to Nizuc Resort & Spa yet? No? Here, put these on and take a tour!'"

Matoke Tours, an African travel tour operator, produced a “Virtual Gorilla” travel brochure, featuring six travel offerings in Uganda, which can be accessed on their website. "This app enables us to convey the intensity and emotion of the travel experience before the journey has even started," said Wim Kok, director of Matoke Tours Uganda, in a press release launching the virtual reality tour. "Travelers are then better able to decide which excursions they want to book."

Last year, Thomas Cook Travel teamed with Samsung and YouVisit competitor Visualise to create a series of short films of several destinations for customers visiting its U.K., Germany, and Belgium stores. Visualise claims the films generated $17,500 in flights and hotel bookings in the first three months of the campaign.

YouVisit measures customer online viewing time for its clients’ VR experiences. “We’re seeing an average time spent of over 10 minutes,” Mandelbaum said, and more importantly, a customer conversion rate of more than 13%.

YouVisit has created more than 1,000 virtual experiences around the globe, most of which are interactive, including more than 300 in the travel sector. The company has been working primarily with travel destinations and hotels, as well as cruise lines and other attractions.

A video doesn’t come cheap.  A basic YouVisit package costs about $10,000. But as VR camera technology improves, and more players manufacture camera equipment, that price will drop, experts say. For example, Google recently teamed with GoPro to produce Google Jump, a circular device that holds 16 GoPro cameras for capturing virtual reality video. Samsung is experimenting with its Project Beyond camera, a virtual reality video camera capable of live-streaming footage.

Facebook owns Oculus, a VR firm that recently released its first commercial VR headset, the Rift, which retails for $599. While high, that price hasn’t stalled demand. Facebook began taking preorders for the Rift in March and sold out all of its production run for the month.

Google recently released Google Cardboard, a lightweight viewer that retails for as little as $15 online. The Cardboard can be emblazoned with a company’s logo, and has high-quality lenses that transform VR content on a smartphone into immersive experiences.

Ultimate Jet uses both Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, Kadoch said. Matoke Tours leverages Google Cardboard as well, while Thomas Cook customers in the U.K., Germany, and Belgium use Samsung’s Gear VR headset.

Marriott Hotels & Resorts also has used the Samsung VR Headset as part of its VRoom Service kit. Guests can borrow a VR device and experience "VR Postcards,” where the users can visit destinations around the world.

There are expected to be 2.3 million total U.S. VR headset sales in 2016, according to Greenlight VR and Road to VR. The two firms, who just released their “2016 Virtual Reality Industry Report,” forecast that number to grow to 136 million in 2025.

For agents thinking high-tech sales are only for the young, Kadoch offers his personal experience. “I think VR has no barriers when it comes to demographics. We’ve had 70-year-old travel agents hold us up in meetings for 20 minutes because they don’t want to take the VR goggles off,” said Kadoch, who doesn’t describe himself as “tech friendly.”

In fact, he relied on his team members to help him take the plunge into Virtual Reality films and marketing.  “When I saw how excited they were about VR, and they slowly walked me through it, I became a big fan.”

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