Any time a country or region imposes any sort of visa stipulation - even if it’s a waiver - the travel industry sighs a collective groan, knowing the obstacles and headaches to come.
TORONTO — The lines between technology and travel have become increasingly blurred in today’s digital age, with social media being used to market destinations, chat bots imitating real people to dish out travel tips, and apps making it possible to customize trips with just one swipe of your finger.
But perhaps where you can find the best example of the two worlds colliding is in the Virtual Reality (VR) space. A few years ago, VR was tapped to be the next big thing in travel – and it was, with companies like Marriott, Shangri-La and Lufthansa integrating the technology into its entertainment offerings and marketing campaigns. In 2015, Thomas Cook even took home the award for ‘Most Innovation Development in Entertainment’ after launching its ‘Try Before Your Fly’ holiday experience in the U.K, a 360-degree VR film.
Like those early adopters, Travelweek caught the VR bug from the get go, launching Explor VR (formerly Xplr VR) in October 2016. The free travel app, which spent over a year in research and development, gave travel agents an innovative way to attract new business, close the sale, and showcase a destination, hotel, cruise ship or attraction in ways no brochure or website ever could. And the best part? It was so easy to use, requiring either just a smartphone that slid into a cardboard makeshift headset or an upgraded, more professional headset, available for purchase online.
The initial rollout of Explor VR included 5,000 starter kits being mailed to travel agencies across Canada, with approximately 30 VR experiences to scroll through. But like all gadgets in the fast-paced world of technology, Explor VR has gotten an upgrade, complete with more user-friendly options and nearly three times the experiences.
To ensure the most realistic and transformative experience for clients, the basic cardboard headsets are a thing of the past. Now, agencies can purchase a high-tech Zeiss-model headset online at explorvr.com/headsets for $129, using discount code INTREPID to receive an additional 10% off. VR headsets are readily available in most electronic shops, but as Devin Kinasz, Explor VR President and Director of Digital Strategy at Travelweek warns, you get what you pay for.
“We spent several months testing VR headsets and decided on Zeiss as our preferred model,” she says. “Zeiss is a world leader in optical technology, and the VR headset is durable, easy to use and offers one of the best visual experiences.”
Moreover, the updated version now allows users to scroll through experiences on their phone, which according to client feedback is the preferred method of browsing. Prior to the update, users had to scroll through options only after donning their headsets through a method called ‘gazing’, which required them to stare at the selected item for several seconds on the screen.
Also, unlike the earlier version where users had to stream experiences using Wi-Fi, the revamped version now offers an offline playback option. In other words, users can download an experience using Wi-Fi at home or, say, Starbucks, then watch the experience later on in the day without the need for any Wi-Fi network, a feature that could come in handy at events and tradeshows.
And with ‘VR’ still the buzzword in travel industry circles today, more suppliers have signed on to launch experiences through the customized platform. To date, Explor VR offers 88 experiences lasting about three minutes each and ranging from surfing in the Dominican Republic and a helicopter tour in Las Vegas, to a ship tour with Princess Cruises, a walkabout through Club Med’s ski hotels, and an experience in Italy with Contiki.
G Adventures, which has been a major partner of Explor VR from the beginning, currently offers two VR experiences – India and Peru – with a third about Cuba being added later this year. Since launching with Explor VR, G’s experiential videos have been viewed over 4,000 times, representing over 120 hours of full brand immersion.
“We’re embracing VR as an exciting opportunity to get more people travelling the G way,” says Aziz Sheikh, Director of Marketing, Canada at G Adventures. “We’ve got 600 tours across seven continents and multiple travel styles, so as we build our VR library, we can showcase products that are truly unique. It’s about giving passengers something different, even in a virtual experience.”
Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel’s Director of North America, agrees, telling Travelweek that the ability to show people where they are travelling to, beyond website images and texts, will be a great asset to the future of the travel industry. Both Intrepid and Peregrine Adventures, part of the Intrepid Group, have VR experiences currently running on the Explor VR app, one for Morocco and another cruising in Croatia.
“Beyond the brochures and online pictures, VR allows travellers to be transported to a destination, which will make selling that destination much easier,” he says. “Travel agents make a living on selling experiences and travel destinations, this tool will be a great asset to them.”
Herein lies the dual-power of virtual reality: it benefits both consumers and agents. For anyone still on the fence between booking a trip or walking out the door, a VR demonstration can be what pushes that client to seal the deal. Moreover, in terms of agent training, there’s no other medium on the market today that’s more fun, interactive or effective than virtual reality. In just a few minutes, agents can virtually explore destinations, hotels, cruises and activities from their desks so that they can, in turn, give clients precise and detailed information about the product.
“Using the app for personal training is a great way to increase knowledge and confidence in your sales capabilities,” says Derek Kalinoswky, Travel Consultant with Flight Centre, who first downloaded the Explor VR app a year ago. “I feel that the app allowed me to be more comfortable with selling unfamiliar products, and thus has increased my total sales numbers.”
Kalinowsky, who recommends the use of virtual reality to all agents, has long since believed that VR and tourism go hand in hand.
“There aren’t many ways that you can transport yourself to 10 different countries with multiple companies all in one day without even leaving your couch. Learning what makes a resort chain or a tour company unique allows you the ability to sell the product with more confidence and to know that your client will love where they’re going,” he adds.
And as virtual reality continues to evolve, grow and improve over time, so too will travel agents’ chances at expanding their business.
“Virtual reality is a huge stepping block for the industry,” says Kalinowsky. “Just like how still photography revolutionized so many industries, VR and 360-degree images and film will change how the industry operates. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes commonplace.”