Virtual reality technology can be downplayed as being limited to only niche applications. 

Even Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Facebook-acquired VR company Oculus, believes that it will be most widely used by gamers and enthusiasts over the next several years.

However brands in the travel industry are already exploring how they can use it to market and sell more effectively.

As detailed by Bloomberg's Jennifer Parker, companies like hotel giant Marriott, travel agency Thomas Cook and airline Qantas Airways are experimenting with initiatives around VR headsets.

Marriott created a special Teleporter station using the Oculus Rift. Thomas Cook has outfitted ten of its locations with Samsung Gear VR headsets that allows prospective travellers to get a virtual taste of the experiences they're interested in purchasing without stepping foot on foreign soil.

Eventually, as more and more consumers purchase VR technology of their own, companies like Marriott and Thomas Cook will be able to deliver virtual experiences to them in their homes.

In the interim, Thomas Cook isn't waiting for those with wanderlust to wander into its stores. It has developed a campaign that will see 5,000 brochures with $24 Google Cardboard headsets delivered to potential customers. Those customers will be able to download an app and drive a virtual reality experience using their smartphones.

"This is a huge sales tool that's scalable and affordable" stated Marco Ryan, Thomas Cook's chief digital officer.

Not just a sales and marketing tool

Selling experiences can be difficult for obvious reasons. Pictures, words and video alone can't come close to replicating a multi-sensory experience that has to be lived to be believed. As Michael Dail, VP of marketing for Marriott, noted, "Nothing can replace actually going to a destination, experiencing it yourself, and sharing your experiences with others."

VR technology might be able to change that enough to be effective, so it's no surprise that marketers are lining up to use it to market and sell their wares well in advance of mainstream consumer availability and acceptance. 

But VR technology's applications don't end at sales and marketing. As Bloomberg's Parker observes, the technology could one day create a market for augmented trips, allowing consumers to pay to virtually travel to places they are not able go physically.

This could be a blessing and a curse for travel companies.

Some, like Marriott and Qantas Airways, could stand to lose if spending on virtual travel ever starts to cannibalise spending on real travel. Others, like Thomas Cook, could conceivably tap into a new market of virtual travellers. If they are able to reshape their businesses before VR-focused upstarts disrupt them.

Rethinking "experience"

Of course, the opportunities and threats that might be created by virtual reality technology aren't limited to the travel sector. In today's economy, many companies effectively sell experiences, not products and services, so VR has the potential to affect any business that is experience-based.

For that reason, many companies large and small should keep an eye on VR in the coming months and years.

It might not break out of niche applications like gaming this year or next, but if and when it does, it could conceivably be as big as when consumers started embracing smartphones.

If you want to learn more about VR for marketing, check out Econsultancy’s Marketer’s Guide to Virtual Reality. 

Patricio Robles

Published 24 June, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

I think it will take 10-20 years, until hardware gets powerful enough to simulate 3D scenes accurately when the user moves their head freely. Current VR users often suffer a form of motion sickness: Serious gamers seem willing to persevere until their brain adapts, but shoppers are less motivated.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality_sickness

almost 3 years ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

I tried Google Cardboard just the other day, at some length. Only the Google Cardboard app with specifically rendered 3D models was in any way acceptable. All other apps which used Cardboard simply rendered the same full screen image twice side by side, instead of 2 slightly different perspectives side by side. The result was a massive let down with significant double vision problems for everyone who tried it, plus the middle of the pictures were missing because the lenses were so far apart.

That disappointment aside, VR has definite applications for people who sell physical products/experiences that they can't bring to the consumer. E.G. cruise lines, hotels, travel agents, theme parks etc. It's great for experiential activities away from the core location, and can have a real wow factor if delivered effectively.

One step back from VR is of course 360s, Street View etc, which is relatively cheap, doesn't make anyone sick, and can be used by anyone with no headset required. It's convincing people to make that move from 2D to 3D that will be tricky, and for now would seem to have limited opportunities.

Whilst there are other devices on the market, it will be interesting to see how Oculus Rift moves the market on when it launches. It's touted to be to VR what the iPad was to the tablet market.

almost 3 years ago

Giles Bailey

Giles Bailey, Director at Stratageeb Limited

I've tried 3d glasses in Milan at the World's Fair and while impressive, it doesnt yet capture the full sensory experience, but I suppose that isnt the point. We are heading to a world where the capability of this technology will increase very quickly, Also, it really isnt possible for everyone to be able to experience particularly the natural visitor experiences in the world without destroying these places and habitats. Virtual reality will become a fact of life for much of the tourism sector in the coming decades.

almost 3 years ago

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Jacki James, Strategic Planner at Zuni

I put on the Samsung VR Gear and watched the shark diving film as shown here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MLvt2O1Az8
Totally blew my mind!!! It was so real that I had to take the goggles off when the shark headed towards me. Anyone doubting the capability or reality of VR should check this out.

almost 3 years ago

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Bruce Rosard, Principal at UP211

You guys are funny, "it isn't great yet", "5-10 more years", seriously? and how many of you had a smart phone in your pocket 10 years ago and now they are ubiquitous.

almost 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

@Bruce Rosard: Where's the flying car powered by nuclear fusion that I was promised back in 1960, and my holiday home on Mars that was predicted when the moon landings happened almost 50 years ago??? Some things are much harder than they look and vomit-free VR with real-world-equivalent graphics is one of them.

almost 3 years ago

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Joan Rennaker, Retired at Retired

I can't wait for VR travel to become a reality. It is the only way I will ever see the Antartica, Africa, and the Himalyas as I cannot physically be there.

almost 3 years ago

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Nick Stokes, Tutor at FE Education

Sounds exciting but I want to feel the warmth of the sunshine, feel the surf on my feet, actually taste the culinary dishes of the country I am in. Too much to ask of virtual reality!

about 2 years ago

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