Travel marketing is based on feelings and appeals to the senses. From adventure tours to city breaks, many of the most effective campaigns are based on creating tangible wants and desires in the consumer. As travel has been curtailed over the past two years, have tech solutions like VR and AR kept the dream of travel alive – and how else is technology empowering travel marketing?
Despite how novel it feels in practice, using virtual reality (VR) tech to promote travel destinations is nothing new. Newspapers including The Financial Times were using 360° videos to profile cities as far back as 2016, and travel agents were using the wow factor of well-done VR experiences to sell packages the same year.
Since then, the rise of consumer VR tech like the Oculus Quest has allowed marketers to go further still. There are any number of fantastic VR travel experiences, from the hard-hitting like Traveling While Black, to the fantastic city tours available on every piece of VR hardware.
Andrew Kiguel is chief executive officer of Tokens.com, an NFT specialist with particular interest in the practical applications of VR. He tells The Drum: “We’ve invested in a platform called Superworld; it takes a different standpoint in that they’re saying this is virtual tourism so you can go to Mount Rushmore or the Taj Mahal, walk around at your own leisure and see what this looks like. [It’s] something you might not be able to experience otherwise and there’ll be other virtual tourists walking around you can talk to and interact with.
“[It’s] not just like going to the real thing. This is a close second, especially during a pandemic.”
The use of VR to tell travel stories lies at the heart of many of the most effective travel marketing campaigns of the past two years – provided you can do more than simply plonk a 360° camera down and call it a day. The BBC recently invested in just such a narrative-led VR series with The Green Planet Experience, in partnership with EE.
In addition to having invested in on-board VR experiences, airline Qantas has placed marketing funds in VR, with its Qantas VR app having delivered videos that attempt to communicate the feeling of being in destinations including Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef.
John Speers is head of strategy of travel marketing specialist agency Kemosabe. He believes that the role of technology is to create that desire for sensory experiences, even when the technology itself cannot replicate them: “This is travel marketing and the future of it. To replicate (or give a taste of) that experience so palpable that you can’t wait to enjoy it in the real world. We’re not replacing it, as I believe that is impossible, but we are using best-in-class technology to replicate some dimensions of it to ‘whet the appetite.’ It’s marketing the experience, not replacing it.
“Whatever great experience you like, you have a visceral moment where you go, ‘how good is this?’ It’s a sensory experience that you can’t replicate digitally – the sights, smells, sensations, sounds, warmth, relationships, emotions, discomfort, whatever stimuli you pick up as a real live person from a real live situation. You just can’t get this online. No matter what the metaverse produces.”
Beyond the flashy aspects of travel marketing in VR, our phones continue to play a huge role in generating the sentiment and desire around booking holidays and excursions. Instagram alone boasts a huge stable of travel marketers, many of whom partner with agencies, resorts or destinations in order to sell those packages.
Back in 2017 The Travel Project, an Instagram-focused project by two ex-ad agency creators, set the stage for further partnerships between platforms, destinations and influencers. And much of that is predicated on the ability of social media and platforms to create communities that share news about and experiences of travel with one another.
Speers says: “I agree with Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, who believes ‘a more three-dimensional internet will replace a two-dimensional internet, not replace real life. I don’t think that’s any technologists’ vision that I’m aware of – that we never exist in the physical world. These digital experiences, to me, are gateways. There are ways for people to try Airbnb for $10 or $20. They can connect with a host without having to get on a plane and stay in someone’s home in another country. It’s a lower commitment.’
“This is exactly the ‘whetting of the appetite’ I refer to. Brian continues, ‘there is a major risk to the digital revolution: we are living in one of the loneliest periods in human history. When you take physical communities and you atomize them, they’re not always as nourishing as the physical world. No one has ever changed someone else’s mind in a YouTube comment section … the best way to change someone’s mind is to walk in their shoes – to stay in their home, go in their community.’”
That advocacy through social media is also at the heart of how charitable travel companies including Planeterra have marketed themselves over the past few years. Rhea Simms, director of global programs at Planeterra, says: “The pandemic made a lot of Planeterra’s messaging become mainstream in many ways. One of the messages that was really prominent at the start of the pandemic and has continued throughout is the idea of buying and supporting ‘local.’ Many people became aware of the impact they have when it comes to supporting local businesses.
“Another key message that was coming to fruition was just how important the tourism industry was to local people in many destinations. Many travelers started to advocate and make it known they wanted their travels to have a positive impact, and as the world’s leading non-profit using tourism to aid development were excited that many tourism operators have come to us as a result.”
Between the VR experiences that engender desire and the social campaigns that play on consumers’ desire to share their own experiences, technology is deeply embedded in travel marketing. While much of it has been accelerated by the pandemic, the reality is that humans are curious and social animals, keen to experience and share new stories.