Scott Largay, director of marketing at Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., using a VR headset. He is a proponent of virtual reality for agencies but said the quality of content he wants to use isn't available yet.
A growing number of travel advisers are reporting that virtual reality (VR) is helping them close sales more often and faster, and several said they're considering ways to put the technology in their clients' hands with branded headsets to make it more accessible.
"You know, you can talk up a resort, you can talk up a destination, but letting them experience it for themselves like they're really there gets them very excited about trips," said Michele Botnick, owner of Lucky N Love Travel in Roswell, N.M.
Botnick is among the agents using a product developed by Virtual Honeymoon, a company owned by former agent Robin Hawkey, who created a set of interactive, online quizzes to help clients narrow their preferred destinations.
The service now offers quizzes for honeymoons, vacations, anniversary trips and weddings (including venue matching). Agents who sign up for the service also get access to VR content for which Hawkey partners with a Canadian company, Explor VR.
A number of Hawkey's agent clients, including Botnick, have begun bringing VR headsets powered by smartphones to bridal shows. They have prospective clients take Virtual Honeymoon's quiz, which takes into account personal preferences and budgets to determine two recommended destinations. They then showcase one or both destinations on the VR headset.
"It literally is doubling their sales," Hawkey said. "They are closing sales quicker, and it gets the clients really excited."
Hawkey has seen agents' use of VR increase in the past year or so, a trend she attributed to the increasing quality and affordability of headsets.
VR has existed in some form for decades, but the market for headsets designed for consumer use has exploded in recent years. At first, headsets required expensive computers to run, but versions that utilize a smartphone have become very common.
Some cost less than $20, among them the Google Cardboard, a smartphone-powered headset. Sets that run off smartphones range in price and quality.
Newer entrants even run as standalone systems, not requiring a smartphone. Among those is the Oculus Go (starting at $200). Higher-end headsets requiring the use of a computer cost hundreds of dollars for the headset alone.
Companies in the retail travel space have been experimenting with VR in recent years. For example, Virtuoso several years ago beta-tested the use of high-end headsets in member agencies. The consortium found that interest varied greatly among members, and VR efforts are now member-driven.
One of those interested members is Direct Travel. Vicky DiMichele, digital marketing manager of leisure at the agency is Willoughby, Ohio, said it plans to introduce VR this year using Oculus Go headsets.
The idea is to place headsets in offices with walk-in leisure business. She would showcase videos from suppliers but is also considering creating her own VR content, especially from familiarization or adviser-incentive trips. That could also be useful for agents, DiMichele said.
Guests viewing content from Virtual Honeymoon at a bridal show.
Largay Travel of Waterbury, Conn., another Virtuoso agency, was an early tester of using high-end headsets in agencies, but Scott Largay, director of marketing, said the agency ran into issues with content development.
The agency was attempting to create its own content and app, but Largay said he found that limits to the amount and quality of content "was very restrictive to what we were looking to do."
Companies producing VR content weren't able to produce the caliber of content Largay wanted, he said, and those that could were "astronomically priced."
"Virtual reality will be a big part of the travel industry moving forward, and I will be there with my headset on when it happens," he said. "But it's just not right now."
While some have taken a step back from VR, Virtual Honeymoon's Hawkey is doubling down on the technology and encouraging resorts to start filming weddings with it
She works with several VR companies, and each has agreed to record at least one complimentary mock wedding as long as the resort hosts the production (and, of course, arranges the event). Hawkey said she has several resorts interested and that she believes they will see a direct impact on bookings if agents showcase weddings virtually.
She said other resorts would likely follow suit and pay to have their own mock weddings recorded in VR.
"The reason that we're doing that is to prove how powerful viewing VR weddings really is and to show how that venue is going to double, if not triple, their weddings by doing something as powerful as a virtual wedding," she said. "Because then you can literally drop the couple into the wedding without being there."
It's not a cheap prospect. In addition to the mock wedding, VR videos feature other aspects of the property to give viewers a better feel for what they will experience. Hawkey estimated that recording one property costs between $7,500 and $10,000, a price driven not only by the effort to videotape at a resort but also the costs of expensive professional equipment and the editing process.
The expense involved in VR is what led Camille Sanders, owner of Chic Romance Travel in Fresno, Calif., to partner with Virtual Honeymoon to offer VR to her clients instead of trying to create her own program and content.
"It's very expensive to produce," she said. "It definitely is better to partner with somebody."
Like Lucky N Love's Botnick, Sanders brings headsets to bridal shows.
"I feel it really sets me aside differently than anything out there, especially with other local agencies," Sanders said. "It's something different to offer."
Miki Taylor, founder and CEO of Taylor & Co. Travel in Auburn, Ala., lives in a college town and brings the headsets to many local events. She said VR has gone over very well with clients, especially students, for whom Taylor plans many spring break trips.
"If I had a storefront, I'd have [headsets] on every station," Taylor said. "Every agent would have them, and they would use them to sell. It sells itself."
Both Sanders and Botnick are also considering purchasing branded headsets that are inexpensive, foldable and easily mailable to clients around the country, who can use their smartphones to view VR content.
Hawkey said VR is a powerful technology for agents to have in their arsenal.
"I just feel it in my gut," she said. "If agents don't get on with the technology, they're going to be the next ones out of business."