As the global travel industry goes through turmoil, could virtual reality travel experiences become the new normal? In this interview with Ed Limon, industry expert and CEO of Winged Whale Media, Toronto, we talk about how virtual reality and augmented reality could reshape the way we travel. Although it is unclear what the future of travel will look like, we are already looking forward to the inevitable recovery. This article is aimed at destination marketing professionals, tourism companies and content creators who are already strategising for that future.

 

The New Reality

You’re cycling in the Austrian Alps. You hear the sound of the wind rushing past you as you fill your lungs with the crisp mountain air. Cowbells tinkle in the distance. In the fields around you, the early signs of a stunning Alpine summer are on display – red vanilla orchid, blue monkshood, mountain arnica, all in full bloom.

Couple cycling in Leogang, Salzburgerland, Austria

Your local guide explains how breathing in natural alpine forest scents is great therapy for respiratory illnesses. You reach down to touch the grass…and only then do you remember that you’re exploring a virtual alpine forest.

This way of travelling could become the new ‘normal’.

The way we travel may never be the same again. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on global (business and leisure) travel preferences, behaviours and attitudes in the short and long term. 

With flight operations grounded across the globe and nations temporarily closing borders and implementing travel bans, the travel industry is moving into uncharted territory in 2020; a move that will, unfortunately, threaten businesses, jobs and livelihoods around the world. The global economic shockwaves will reverberate for a while yet as we all make adjustments.

Autumn Sunset Inspirational Life Lessons, Munich, Germany

The immediate industry impact of this new reality is that physical travel is currently at an all-time low. However, in the short term, could technologies like virtual reality keep us travelling without the need to leave our homes? Could virtual and augmented reality travel experiences become the new normal?

 

Virtual Reality in Travel Marketing

Weeks before the coronavirus became a global pandemic, we spoke with Toronto-based Ed Limon, Digital Media Producer and Creative Director at Winged Whale Media to discuss virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and how these technologies are influencing global travel marketing strategies.

A Cision PR Newswire article, quoting research by Valuates Reports, suggests that the combined market size for virtual reality and augmented reality is expected to reach USD 571.42 billion by 2025.

Drivers behind this projection include advances in smartphone technology, faster connection speeds (think 5G) and improvements in VR hardware and software innovation led by companies such as Google, Samsung, HTC, and Oculus.

Picture of castle in VR | Virtual Reality Travel Experiences

VR and AR are at the intersection of immersive experiences and cutting edge technology. This intersectionality has been leveraged to great effect by industries such as gaming, education and training. Sites like YouTube and Facebook (to name a few) now support 360-degree content.

In the travel industry, virtual reality tourism is already here. For example, hotels like Marriott already use virtual reality to provide virtual 360-degree tours of their properties while destination marketing organisations (DMOs) like Visit Florida have used VR to provide ‘experience tasters’ to potential customers who might be planning holidays.

See: 5 Virtual Reality Travel Experiences That Are Almost as Good as the Real Thing by Condé Nast Traveler

As virtual and augmented reality apps continue to develop, it’s becoming more likely that travellers will interact with these technologies, whether before or after their trips. - Justin Sablich, The New York Times Click To Tweet

 

Virtual Reality Travel Experiences – The Q & A

Ed Limon believes that the full potential of VR and AR in the travel industry is yet to be unleashed. In this interview, we discuss use cases for VR/AR and explore how brands and content creators can successfully leverage these technologies.

HDYTI: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about Winged Whale Media?

Ed Limon: I am a digital media producer and creative director at Winged Whale Media. We are located in Brampton, an area just outside Toronto. We began in 2007, producing traditional consumer advertising and marketing video content before adding VR and AR to our digital content portfolio.

Ed Limon, CEO of Winged Whale Media, Toronto,

With our VR/AR expertise, we have produced a variety of content for consumers including training and education content. In the travel industry, one of our earliest clients was the Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Board. More recently, we’ve worked with Spanish cruise line Pullmantur to produce some amazing content. Some of our other travel clients include tourism boards from Mexico, Dominica, The Bahamas and the USA.

 

HDYTI: Could you explain Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to a non-technical person in a nutshell? What are the key differences between the two?

Ed Limon: VR and AR are two related but different technologies. Virtual reality primarily replaces the physical environment and delivers an immersive experience using VR-enabled devices. Think of VR as a virtual photo tour with moving and interactive elements.

When used to market a destination to consumers, it’s the next best thing to actually visiting the destination. VR ultimately cannot replace the real-life experience but it can be used to great effect to keep potential visitors engaged while we wait out this unprecedented coronavirus travel ban.

In a virtual food tour and cooking class, for example, you can embed different elements e.g., talking heads of local chefs, farmers, growers and producers who can pop-up in real-time and provide narration about ingredients and food history at different points during the experience. 

On the other hand, augmented reality is an emerging technology that focuses on interaction with a real-life physical environment. With AR, you can bring that physical location to life by overlaying digital elements. AR is about turning a 2D environment into a 3D-interactive experience.

Think Pokémon GO (the popular Nintendo game). That’s a great example of enhancing a physical environment using augmented layers.

Screen of phone showing Pokémon Go mobile app | Augmented Reality Travel Experiences

 

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Tourism

HDYTI: Can you share a few examples and use cases for VR and AR in the travel and hospitality industry?

Ed Limon: Sure. We once facilitated a training session for Fiesta Americana’s travel agents to inform them about their hotels and experiences in Cuba.

Instead of simply relying on traditional paper brochures and PowerPoint training assets, we adapted the material using virtual reality headsets and were able to bring the entire presentation to life. The Sunwing Vacations agents felt like they were right there in the destination. We immediately saw how their conversations became more passionate.

The new reality is that tourism boards/travel companies may not be able to fly their media and sales partners to try their destinations and properties for some time. However, VR can be the next best thing.

VR can become a key part of the sales experience. We have testimonials where customers have made purchasing decisions based on what they’ve seen in a VR experience at a trade show. 

Testing Virtual Reality Travel Experiences at a Travel Exhibition | Winged Whale Media

Specifically, with augmented reality, there is an opportunity for travel brands/tourism authorities to leverage smartphone technology to minimise cost on paper/print and to improve their environmental credentials by reducing paper waste. 

And where tourism offices hand out paper maps, they could use AR to bring those maps to life. As visitors to your destination explore, you can use push notifications to inform them about historical facts, local attractions, and small businesses they might want to check out. This is a powerful way to bring the local economy into the tourism ecosystem. 

Augmented Reality Travel Experiences | Example using Pokémon Go mobile app

Data gathered from the use of AR could be great for analytics and could provide deep insight into consumer behaviours.

While we’re all dealing with this lockdown, VR and AR technology can be used to educate, entice and inspire people about travel.

See: The Best VR Apps for 2020 by Digital Trends

 

HDYTI: Virtual Reality has promised much in the last 5 years but widespread adoption in the travel industry remains low. Why do you think this is the case?

Ed Limon: I actually see it differently. From my perspective, VR adoption is on the rise and not declining. When VR was first introduced, it didn’t do very well, mainly due to issues with software and hardware.

Like every new technology, VR has had its highs and lows. But with major platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo embracing VR and seeing it as a driver for innovation, there’s a bright future ahead. Steven Speilberg’s Ready Player One film was a huge endorsement of VR.

 

Where do brands and content creators begin?

HDYTI: How can travel and tourism brands begin their journey into VR and AR? Should they choose one over the other?

Ed Limon: I think the first thing the brand needs to do is to spend time thinking about their strategy. Are they looking to leverage VR/AR for promotion, sales, training or brand awareness? VR and AR are different technologies and deploying one or the other will require a slightly different approach. 

Do they want to use the headsets? If not, that’s fine. There are ways to deploy VR without headsets.

Training travel agents using immersive virtual travel experiences

Companies like ours can help brands jumpstart their AR/VR marketing strategies. Typically we begin with an initial consulting conversation. We try to find out what fears and phobias they have about VR and AR and present various solutions and proposals that could address those concerns.

Filming Virtual Reality Travel Experiences

Should the brand decide to proceed, we then move into the pre-production stage. This stage is key for a successful product. In pre-production, we ask questions such as what mood are they looking to create? What products are they looking to highlight? How many videos do they want to create? During this time, we work closely with the brand to develop a compelling script/storyboard. 

During production, we manage scheduling and logistics including things like communicating with members of the public and signing waivers. Continuous stakeholder engagement is very important to work out any hurdles throughout the production lifecycle. Post-production is where the real magic happens.

 

HDYTI: What about travel content creators like us? What’s the best way for us to add VR/AR to our client propositions?

Ed Limon: Considering the costs and skills involved, in my view, the best way is for you to partner with specialists in VR and AR. 

Creating Virtual Reality Travel Experiences on a Laptop

Companies like ours are in a unique position to bring together content creators, drone pilots, production crews, and software developers under one production roof. Travel and tourism authorities and destination marketing organisations could benefit from having a “one-stop-shop” for VR/AR skills which include content creators like you guys.

 

Could Virtual Reality Travel Experiences Become the New Normal?

For the travel industry, the world feels very claustrophobic right now. Understandably, the global priority right now must be to make our world feel safe again.

Virtual Reality can never truly replace the escapism of boarding a flight heading to a new destination. Technology cannot truly replace the unique sensations, sights, sounds and aromas we experience upon arrival and the cultural interactions that enrich our understanding of those places. 

Looking out from Seawings Seaplane in Dubai | @dipyourtoesin

While the world deals with the ongoing pandemic, perhaps virtual and augmented reality technologies can step in and continue to feed our wanderlust. Perhaps virtual reality travel experiences could become our new normal…but only for a while (we hope).

What do you think?

 

Thanks to Ed Limon and Winged Whale Media for this interview opportunity. To find out more about them, visit their website.

 

Pin This

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).