Tech Talk: Watch this (virtual) space

From crisis training and venue showcasing to brand development – virtual reality is set to return to the business travel sector

You would be mistaken if you imagined virtual reality (VR) had fallen off the wrong side of last year’s Gartner Hype Cycle for emerging technologies. All current predictions urge patience from digitally demanding consumers who want it to delivered right now. It’s expected that VR will take two to five years before it goes mainstream.

But while we were all thinking that after a few airline trials and other industry pilots, VR had returned to the labs and gone quiet, two major airlines, Emirates and Etihad, announced trials at their airport lounges in the same week.

Emirates tested the Skylights Aero Virtual Reality headsets in Dubai in April and May at its business and first-class lounges, respectively. Etihad is also using the same headsets for a month-long trial in Abu Dhabi to gauge feedback before determining whether more long-term use is viable or desirable.

Entertainment is one of the most obvious uses for the technology given its deeply engaging nature and how beautifully it can showcase experiences. However, there are other uses of VR being trialled that should help the technology reach its real potential.

Take training, for example. Emirates has already used the technology to help train cabin crew, while just over a year ago KLM introduced a VR game to help its engineers evacuate a hangar in the event of a fire.

Chris Elson, Diverse Interactive’s client development manager, describes VR as a “persuasive channel of communication which offers a quality level of sustained engagement that people remember”. The company was involved in American Airlines’ “Explore the New American” campaign showcasing its new fleet.

VR can help airlines demonstrate differentiation, something Etihad did successfully with its “Flying Reimagined” You Tube advertisement. It was credited with an uplift in revenue as well as putting the carrier front of mind. After the campaign, research showed viewers were 22 per cent more likely to consider the airline and 7 per cent were willing to pay more for the Etihad experience.

There could be a further-use case for airlines in selling ancillary services – a sort of “buy before you fly” experience via VR at airports or even from a traveller’s home. As Elson says, the technology is proven to prompt consumers to buy more, it promotes well and it instils loyalty.

Into the zone
Airlines are not the only companies trialling the technology in the travel industry. Concur Labs, the innovation arm of travel and expense management company Concur, developed a prototype VR experience that could help travel managers during a traveller security alert.

The technology immerses corporate travel and security managers in a real-life situation, such as an earthquake, and uses VR to help them find and communicate with employees in the affected zone. The 3D simulation is based around Concur’s risk messaging service and enables travel managers and security specialists to access the latest news as well as social media updates on the incident. This, coupled with an instant view of where their travellers are, as well as who might be headed to a region affected by an incident, enables managers to call up contact details for the relevant travellers and provide them with assistance. The virtual reality demo may never make it out of the lab, but it is one way the company is exploring of applying VR to corporate travel management.

VR is also being trialled in the pre-travel stage with Amadeus-owned Navitaire, unveiling a “virtual reality search and booking experience” last year. The technology, which is patent-pending, enables users to search the globe for destinations using their hands to spin it. And, after exploring a destination, potential travellers can search for flights, select a seat and add other products.

It’s not hard to see how this could be applied to the corporate travel world, especially if that persuasive element of VR was added. The technology could help corporate travellers to stay in policy by showing them exactly what is on offer. It could also help not-so-frequent travellers to get a handle on a business trip before departure in terms of hotel location and meeting locations, for example.

Interestingly, an Accenture survey of 21,000 people last year revealed that 67 per cent would use the technology to learn more about a place. Amadeus says, looking ahead, it also plans to add hotel search and booking to the product.

Many in the hotel sector are experimenting with VR. Back in 2017, Marriott offered headsets to guests to help change perceptions of the brand held by millennial travellers. More recently the hotel giant has used the technology for meetings and events. Meetings organisers can view rooms and other related facilities in 3D VR. East Wintergarden, a venue in London’s Canary Wharf, also used the technology to devise a tour to help events managers get a better feel for the space.

While virtual reality is still in the experimental phase, more uses are emerging, from brand and loyalty building to training and selling, and maybe even making the booking experience more enjoyable. Also coming up – and perhaps more useful for the in-trip experience – is augmented reality in which information can be overlaid on a user’s device.

Some experts are heralding mixed reality – a visual experience of VR combined with an information overlay – as the ultimate winner. Watch this space.

Beyond Tokyo – VR helps ANA go beyond core airline business
Beyond Tokyo is a project that emerged from ANA Holdings’ “Just Fly” initiative. It aims to develop new concepts beyond its core airline business. It is focused on developing next generation travel, commerce, and lifestyle experiences. Beyond Tokyo uses virtual reality to encourage people to travel to Tokyo in reality.

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