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The “Try Before You Travel” Revolution is Virtually Here

Not only is virtual reality making a comeback, it will change how your customers shop for travel

Imagine a world where seeing a sunset from a distant hotel balcony, or hearing the waves crash at a far-off oceanfront resort, is as simple as asking for a sample of mint chocolate chip at your neighborhood ice cream parlor.

When virtual reality first made headlines in the 1990s, this was the sort of dream many assumed would be reality by the far-off year 2015. But if mentioning "VR" only conjures up memories of kids' TV shows or short-lived video game consoles, it's time to take another look. The future is here.

Virtual reality is the cutting edge of travel retailing technology. New devices such as Samsung Gear VR and the forthcoming Sphericam 2 will make both consumer VR experiences and professional content creation less expensive.

As part of the "try before you buy" revolution, VR is already changing how people shop for travel. Sabre Hospitality Solutions' new report Future of Hotel Booking: A Guide to Hotel Retailing, produced by PSFK Labs, takes an in-depth look at how technology and tech trends are impacting the travel marketplace.

The same rapid changes are possible with VR technology. "We're starting to see applications that take the traveler beyond just images and videos into truly immersive VR experiences," said Mark McSpadden, director of Sabre Labs – an incubator and research team that analyzes new tech and future trends to learn how they'll impact the travel industry.

Already, McSpadden said, Marriott's "Travel Brilliantly" promotion uses Oculus Rift VR headsets and specially-designed "Teleporter" stations to give travelers a "4D" experience, complete with motion and the smell of "salt air" (thanks to a specially-timed scent release). Since high-end VR technology is still new, and not widely adopted, hoteliers can embrace the novelty factor and create an experience Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Jennifer Parker called "advertising on steroids."

Gone are the days when hoteliers assumed people wouldn't respond to travel marketing when they'd just finished a trip. "There's a lot of opportunity to provide inspiration for future travel, even in-trip," McSpadden said. "People are inspired by their travel experience and are open to exploring future trips and destinations."

The challenge facing the industry is finding interesting ways to give travelers the experience of a destination, accommodations or amenities – the more immersive, the better. Not only will doing so add excitement and raise travelers' level of assurance about the purchase, but travelers can experience high-end accommodations and services, opening the door to upselling opportunities and deeper engagement.

Example: "Suppose I'm staying at a high-end destination, and there's a five-star restaurant with a celebrity chef," McSpadden said. "The hotel might have a VR device in the room that's loaded with an experience of standing in the kitchen, watching the chef and staff work during dinner service. That's an experience I wouldn't be able to have any other way, and it entices me to want to connect with the restaurant."

"McSpadden said hotels should start learning more about VR now in order to make the most of the technology for booking or in-travel experiences, He points to analyst Horace Dediu's research on tech adoption trends in the past century, showing how new technologies are being adopted more rapidly than those that came before. "If VR does take off this time," McSpadden added, "it will happen fast, so now is the time to start understanding the hospitality experiences that can be enabled virtually."

Virtual reality has the potential to interface with mobile apps and devices to provide an immersive travel experience, changing the way travelers shop and what they look for before they buy. Sabre Hospitality Solutions' Future of Hotel Booking report explores how companies such as Lufthansa, British Airways and Fiat are using technology to leverage the "try before you buy" trend. Click here to download a free copy of the report and learn how technology is changing the future of hotel retailing.

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Hugh V. Fisher
Marketing Intern, Sabre Hospitality Solutions

A freelance journalist and digital media consultant, Hugh is pursuing an MBA at North Carolina State University’s Jenkins Graduate School of Management.

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