Cover Story

These Destinations Are Using Virtual Reality to Put You in Their Place

Virtual reality has finally arrived. And destinations and venues are getting increasingly creative about using it for 360-degree tours, high-flying site visits, and more. Grab your headset and take a look.

LA Convention Center

Virtual reality is a bit like the classic video game Pong. Today’s clunky VR headsets and grainy videos may seem crude in 20 years, but at the moment it’s revolutionary technology — and it’s really fun. By 2020, the virtual-reality market could be worth $30 million, according to tech advisory firm Digi-Capital, and with companies like Facebook and Google investing heavily in the technology, headsets soon may be as ubiquitous as smartphones.

In the world of business events, VR is already transforming how some destination marketing organizations work with meeting planners, from saving time and money on sites visits, to creating jaw-dropping experiences at shows. Here are five groups that have embraced VR, along with their successes, insights, and big ideas.

VISIT ST. PETERSBURG/CLEARWATER

‘Experiment. Don’t Be Afraid to Try 360.’

 

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What they offer

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater’s 360-degree videos show what it’s like to splash with dolphins, zoom over the Gulf of Mexico on a jet pack, and enjoy a variety of other experiences. You can see the videos at visitstpeteclearwater.com/360-videos.

Instant success 

The destination’s foray into virtual reality started in 2014, when it hired a company to produce a destination overview, which debuted at the U.S. Travel Association’s IPW show in June 2015. “We were the only destination on the show floor to have VR, and we had long lines for several days,” said Leroy Bridges, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater’s media and interactive director. “People loved it.”

Big savings 

The organization paid $35,000 for the first video, and received two headsets and phones. “I started pricing the equipment and the software that the company we worked with used, invested about $6,000 — a fraction of what we paid for that first video — and we started creating them in house,” Bridges said. “We’ve got about 25 videos now and eight headsets. The engagement and reaction at shows, it’s a slam dunk. Every time someone takes off the headset, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ VR brings a destination to life.”

Lots of eyeballs 

The 360 videos have received more than 10 million views over the past year on Facebook, YouTube, and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater’s website. To increase the number of viewers, the organization developed a custom video player for its website. “It’s great if people can put on a headset and experience it in person,” Bridges said, “but to reach more consumers, we needed to increase distribution. Having it on the site is incredible.”

Changing their approach 

“Our first video was a compilation of different experiences,” Bridges said. “Next I wanted to isolate those experiences and events. If someone wanted to put on the headset, and they wanted to parasail — here’s a parasailing video. Or here’s kayaking. You can scroll through the different experiences and choose what you want.”

Newest development 

Visit St. Petersburg/Clear-water has begun overlaying text in the videos, Bridges said, “providing more context with calls to action.” Its jet-pack video, for example, notes that the pack can reach speeds of up to 30 mph, and provides other fun facts. “Normally I would say, don’t junk up the video with text,” Bridges said, “but because it’s 360, people can move away from the text.”

Biggest challenge 

VR can be more time-intensive than your standard production, depending on the complexity. “You typically can’t turn them out as fast as a traditional video,” Bridges said. “And because it’s 360 degrees, you can’t control the whole environment. Normally it’s easy to omit something you don’t want. But we tried one at a hotel that was opening and they still had a ladder in the lobby and various unfinished touches. With 360, it just didn’t work.”

Best advice 

“Experiment. Don’t be afraid to try 360,” Bridges said. “Our creative manager did one down a waterslide. It’s pretty basic, but it’s got around 411,000 views on YouTube.” The emphasis on movement applies to meeting venues as well: “We’re capturing our best venues in use, with people in them — how you would experience it if you were at that event. Not empty, unused spaces.”

LOS ANGELES TOURISM & CONVENTION BOARD

‘We Wanted to Encourage Content Sharing’

 

Meet LA Screenshot 3

What they offer

Virtual Discover L.A. debuted last October and is available at discoverlosangeles.com/meetla. Users can visit more than 50 venues and locales with 360-degree tours, which can also be seen with VR viewers such as Google Card-board. And Los Angeles hotel videos are available on the Meet L.A. app, which can be downloaded on any mobile device, and provides access to 25 of the 360-degree virtual tours, along with articles, videos, contact info for sales and customer-service teams, venue capacities with square footage, and a calendar of major citywide special events.

Key partners 

Xplorit created the virtual tours for Virtual Discovery L.A. The company shot the 360-degree footage in two visits to Los Angeles; it took about two months to compile the footage into the VR tour. MobiManage developed the Meet L.A. app, and ensured that everything from the website was accessible within the app.

Benefits for meeting planners 

“Accessing some of the more popular L.A. destinations through virtual-360 tours allows meeting planners to do site inspections without being here, which saves time and money,” said Darren K. Green, senior vice president of sales for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. “From there, they can connect to our team of destination experts with a click of a button, and present their findings to senior leadership from the palm of their hand. And when they do make their visit to L.A., they already have a good idea of what to see and what will work.”

LA Convention Center

It’s not just about video 

The app includes articles of special interest to planners, such as “10 Reasons Why Meetings Attendees Love L.A.” and “Top 10 Outdoor Venues in L.A.,” along with content on such subjects as concert venues that double as event space. “We’re committed to updating the app’s content weekly,” Green said, “to ensure planners can find the most up-to-date information on L.A.’s premier offerings and make informed decisions.”

Don’t forget about storage

“One of our main priorities was creating an app that used minimal device storage,” Green said. “Many users are hesitant to download apps that take up a lot of space, or they’ll delete apps they don’t often use when space becomes limited. Because the Meet L.A. app is so small — about 30 MB — we’re hoping more users will download it. A lot of the app content lives on our website or YouTube channel, so it’s not stuffed with videos. Instead, it directs users to MeetLA.com, where everything is housed. We also wanted to encourage content sharing, so a share feature lets users distribute content via email, text, and social media.”

And don’t overreach 

“A common mistake is creating a platform that tries to do everything but doesn’t do so effectively,” Green said. “The app, for example, does not allow meeting planners to book spaces or venues. If they have questions or want to book a space, they can easily contact our L.A. Tourism sales staff through the ‘Contact Us’ tab. We didn’t want to eliminate the individual connection with our sellers, who are committed to providing a seamless planning experience.”

MARRIOTT INDYPLACE

‘Plan, Plan, Plan, and Then Plan Some More’

Marriott IndyPlace All 5 hotels Checkered Board

What they’re planning 

Marriott IndyPlace consists of five Marriott hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center: JW Marriott Indianapolis, Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, Courtyard by Marriott Indianapolis Downtown, SpringHill Suites by Marriott Indianapolis Downtown, and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Indianapolis Downtown. The complex is working with WeCreate Media to produce four 60- to 90-second virtual-reality videos, scheduled to debut late this year or early in 2018.

Why they’re doing it 

The hotels were marketed separately until last year, when White Lodging, the management company for the five proper-ties, repositioned them as one experience called Marriott IndyPlace. “With our reimagined brand,” said Senior Marketing Manager Michelle Klein, “we knew we had to do something different that could make a splash and set us apart from the competition.”

The goal

“We want viewers to see the connectivity of the five hotels and how easy it is to move from hotel to hotel,” Klein said. “We also want to showcase that we have 2,276 rooms and 150,000 square feet of meeting space connected via skywalk, and that meeting planners can utilize every inch of that space with ease.” The project should make users feel like they’re on a site tour and not just clicking through still images. Rather than simply showing a conference room, for example, the videos will show what that room looks and feels like, from setup to hosting the actual meeting.

Headsets in the mail

The videos will be shown at events, trade shows, and on marriottindyplace.com. Marriott is also considering sending cardboard VR viewers to clients via a direct-mail campaign.

Biggest lesson so far 

“Plan, plan, plan, and then plan some more,” Klein said. “We spent a lot of time with our sales and event managers discussing different setups and room combinations to make sure we capture and highlight the right areas.” Some ideas were dropped — such as having a host who guided viewers through the hotels. “We discarded this idea,” Klein said, “because we wanted the viewer to be that person. To us, VR is experiencing things through your own eyes.”

INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION CENTRE (ICC) SYDNEY

‘You Don’t Want Viewers Getting Dizzy’

ICC Sydney_Theatre

What they’re planning

ICC Sydney and Tourism Australia have hired Grainger Films to produce a two-minute VR sizzle reel that showcases the new center, which opened this past December. The center plans to debut the video next month. Meanwhile, it’s already sharing 360-degree videos with clients that let them investigate various rooms and spaces.

The goal

“In a competitive convention market-place where it’s difficult to capture attention,” said Samantha Glass, ICC Sydney’s director of communications, “we need to steal their hearts within the first few seconds of engagement — and we believe an immersive, high-quality VR experience is the best way to do this.” 

What they’re filming 

“We’re shooting conventions, banquets, exhibitions, parties, unique dining experiences, and live entertainment — a good cross-section of the types of events held at ICC Sydney,” Glass said. “Viewers will experience pre-banquet drinks on the ballroom’s top-floor balcony as they gaze over the harbor, the sky alight with fireworks. They’ll see an international event underway that utilizes our contemporary theaters and meeting spaces, celebrate Sydney’s weather at an event on our 5,000-square-meter outdoor deck, or encounter our executive chef in Australia’s largest kitchen.” 

The launch plan

Staff will take headsets to trade shows and meetings, and ICC Sydney may mail out branded cardboard headsets to clients. A version of the video will be available online, so people can see it without headsets.

Future ideas

“Over time, we’d love to build a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ ICC Sydney app,”  Glass said, “where clients can choose an immersive VR video based on the size and requirements of their event.” For example, if your conference is under 1,000 attendees, you’d find a menu of content and videos to match your interests. The same would be true for a variety of conference sizes.

Biggest lesson

Focus on action. “We have all popped on headsets of flat VR scenes with an end-
less ocean or a near-empty room,” Glass said, “significantly diminishing the impact of the experience.”

Also, guide the viewer’s eye by providing a focal point. Glass uses the example of a 360-degree clip of wild elephants that has received 2.7 million views on YouTube. “It’s a completely immersive experience, and you know exactly where to look,” she said. “I can
almost smell the elephants and feel their heavy footsteps.” For DMOs and venues, that means focusing on what’s important. “You don’t want viewers getting dizzy or missing your best assets because they’re looking in the opposite direction.”

THAILAND CONVENTION & EHIBITION BUREAU (TCEAB) 

‘You Can’t Cut and Stitch Footage’

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What they offer:

TCEB has three 360 videos: “Legends Retold” (which looks at Thailand’s culture), “Days of Wonder” (beautiful places), and “A City Full of Dreams” (the country as a business destination). The videos, which debuted in September 2016, are available on YouTube. 

Next steps: 

“We are creating more stories,” said Arisara Thanuplang, TCEB’s senior manager of corporate communications, “that touch on the many travel experiences linked to TCEB’s wide range of MICE content and exciting destinations.” The videos will soon be available not only in English but in Chinese and Spanish, and new videos will focus on both domestic and international markets.

Response from meeting planners 

“Because this is still a relatively new technology, viewers are fascinated by the viewing experience,” Thanuplang said. “But it is also a vital marketing tool that will help us work smarter, encourage more informed decisions, and create an appreciation of Thailand’s exceptional MICE content.”

Biggest lesson 

Be patient and prepared. “The process was time-consuming, and we were often challenged by weather,” Thanuplang said. “And creating a virtual-reality video is not like shooting a traditional film or promotional clip. You can’t cut and stitch footage. The actors need to get it right, since the camera rig rotates. If not, we have to go back to square one and shoot the footage all over again.” 

 

Ken Budd

Contributing Editor Ken Budd is a freelance writer based in Burke, Virginia, author of the memoir The Voluntourist, and host of “650,000 Hours,” a new digital series about travel and volunteering.