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.