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Industry Spotlight: Why Hotels are Embracing Virtual Reality

The hotel industry is extremely competitive. A modern hotel marketer has to not only understand the current wants of travelers, but also how travelers discover hotels in the first place. Technology, from comparison search engines (Kayak) to last minute booking sites (Hotel Tonight), has expanded the opportunities for reaching new potential customers. However, this same technology has often relied on discounting, eating into profit margins without necessarily creating loyal patrons.

Making Your Hotel Stand Out

Alongside price and location, the most important factor in choosing a hotel for me is my perceived experience. Brand name has a certain resonance, though I know that quality can vary based on location and franchise owner. Reviews are another good indicator, though those too have great variance. In truth, it's very difficult to get a sense for an experience. How can I know what something is like when I've never been there before? All of that is changing thanks to Virtual Reality.

Why Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality creates an immersive experience that transports you to places you've never been before. It's particularly well-suited for marketing hotels, which have the duel responsibility for not only getting travelers interested in the physical hotel, but often also the surrounding vacation destination itself. VR creates excitement in almost unparalleled way. It's not surprising then that according to a survey by Greenlight VR, 71% of respondents found that brands that use VR appear more "forward-thinking and modern."

VR, as opposed to comparison pricing and last minute deal sites, actually increases the perceived value of a hotel. An event planner has to use their imagination to transform an empty conference room or outdoor wedding venue into something magical. But through the power of Virtual Reality, that same decision maker can see and experience an actual company event or party taking place in that space. 

How Do Hotels Use VR Now?

Within the last two years, we've gone from a small number of early adopter hotels dipping their toes into virtual reality, into a much wider number of marketers embracing the technology. Some of that accelerated adoption comes from more widespread use of head mounted displays (HMDs), including Google Cardboard and Gear VR. Some of it comes from companies like InstaVR enabling hotel marketers to create 360 experiences for non-HMD consumption, via the web or mobile devices. And some of it is simply viral -- once a marketer has tried out another hotel's VR experience, they realize that they too should be utilizing it to help shape brand perception.

What's also surprising is the breadth of VR experiences being created. It's not just to allow you to experience a hotel room anymore. You can navigate through a whole hotel captured on a 360 photo/video device like the Ricoh Theta S. Or you can even put together a drone-captured 360 video to get a truly comprehensive virtual visit.

What Hotels Are Utilizing VR Now?

Short answer: many. Below is just a few of the forward-thinking hotel marketers, technologists, and creatives I've identified who are successfully using VR.

1. In terms of scale, you're not going to find a much bigger deployment of VR by a hotel chain than Best Western. Their Chief Marketing Officer, Dorothy Dowling, recently announced the launch of the "Best Western Virtual Reality Experience," letting you vicariously travel to all 2,200 Best Western locations.

2. Sometimes VR isn't used to lure travelers to your hotel. It's to make the stay at the hotel even more amazing. To that end, Marriott Hotels piloted a program at a London location where you could order a Gear VR pre-loaded with videos that take you to distant lands. Sure beats the reruns on tv! This, along with a number of other VR experiences like their Oculus Rift-powered Teleporter Booths, show that Marriott isn't afraid to experiment with the technology. According to Michael Dail, VP of Global Brand Marketing at Marriott, these VR endeavors are meant to "spark conversation about why people travel."

3. Facebook, as they've publicly announced, is moving heavily into both video & 360. So it's not surprising that some hotels are venturing into 360 ads. Hilton recently launched a 360 ad that allows you to experience the Hilton Barbados and then tap "Book Now" if you're interested. A very cool feature of this, developed by Mike Owen and his Opera Mediaworks technology team, is that you can opt in to allow for greater engagement

4. How do you make marketing your hotel more interactive? Make it a contest! St. Giles hotels this summer is running a contest where selected winners will be given a night's stay at a participating hotel, along with a prosumer camera, to capture the surrounding sights in an engaging way that will be experienced by users on a Gear VR. They're also, through their technology partner Piranha, putting together a mobile app to be experienced on Google Cardboard. According to Piranha's Rob Sabatini, they want to make St. Giles VR highly accessible, not just for high end users of HMDs, but also for casual visitors to Facebook and YouTube.

5. Speaking of making VR accessible, this Spring GCH Hotel Group in Europe started promoting its 120 locations through VR. Daniel Wishnia, the Director of Digital Promotion, and his marketing team at GCH are making VR apps for Google Cardboard, Rift, and the web. They clearly understand the value of publishing widely, since potential hotel guests access VR through many means.

6. Not all hospitality companies are using VR specifically for attracting new guests. Some, like Carlson Rezidor, are actively using it to help promote the design at locations before they're fully furnished. According to Thorsten Kirschke, President Asia Pacific at the hotel group, this technology will be beneficial to owners and investors, while increasing the brand perception of their hotel group.

7. Trade shows and conferences are an essential part of hotel marketing. So it's no surprise that Sri Lanka's Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts rolled out its immersive VR experience at World Travel Mart (WMT) in London last year. You're definitely going to capture some attention if you can get Miss England to don a headset to be transported to the island nation. According to Dileep Mudadeniya, head of Brand Marketing, VR is "real and exciting for a potential buyer at the pre-purchase stage for an intangible product." 

As you can see, no two hotels are using virtual reality the same way. And the investment to make these experiences is often not terribly significant: all you need is a 360 camera, an InstaVR account, and some imagination. Why wouldn't a hotel use VR to stand out from the competition.

Come back next week to our blog where our industry spotlight will focus on transportation. 

Interested in VR for your hospitality group? Contact our Head of Sales & Marketing, Andrew Woodberry: If you want to see us in person, we'll be presenting at Hall 9, Booth D31, at DMEXCO in Cologne, Germany on September 14th & 15th.