For the past two years, the novel pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation in all aspects, including travel and tourism. Virtual tour is one of the modern tools that takes advantage of the edge-cutting technology to optimize branding and marketing, especially for destinations and hospitality sectors.

Destination Review had a conversation with Mr. Colm Hutchinson, the Managing Director of Halo Digital Media, which specializes in creating engaging and results-driven digital content such as video, photography and especially 360 Virtual Tours for many destinations and hospitality firms to discuss on how can this emerging element drive to the tourism industry.

1. Before Halo Digital Media, you had been consulting for the hospitality players for a long time. Are there any differences between traditional marketing and modern digital marketing using new engaging digital content like videos, 360 images and 360 virtual tours?

I started working in Vietnam 11 years ago, and back then the marketing mix was still quite traditional. Print advertising, directory listings, direct mail and television were all important channels in promoting accommodations for business and leisure travelers. Over the years, digital has transformed the industry, advertising spend has been pushed to online channels and social media has taken over. It was around 7 years ago I started moving into digital content and media, and I guess the biggest change to hospitality marketing was that brands were able to engage much more directly with their customers online. This pushed the creation of new content and led to the rise of video marketing, 360 virtual tours and virtual reality technology.

The rise of video content consumption across the web has been impressive over the last 5 years. I have seen some hotel partners market themselves very successfully through comprehensive video marketing programs. However, I feel the hospitality industry generally has been relatively slow in integrating video and new media correctly into its marketing strategy. Many hotels still rely on generic 2-3 minute brand videos in their marketing communication. From my experience, creating a library of micro videos that target specific client demographics and cover many different features of the property are far more effective in engaging customers and driving conversions. This should extend to in-house media and using video promote F&B, spa and other revenue streams to guests during their stays.

The rise of video content consumption across the web has been impressive over the last 5 years. I have seen some hotel partners market themselves very successfully through comprehensive video marketing programs. However, I feel the hospitality industry generally has been relatively slow in integrating video and new media correctly into its marketing strategy. Many hotels still rely on generic 2-3 minute brand videos in their marketing communication. From my experience, creating a library of micro videos that target specific client demographics and cover many different features of the property are far more effective in engaging customers and driving conversions. This should extend to in-house media and using video promote F&B, spa and other revenue streams to guests during their stays.

The same can be said for virtual tours. Many people were initially reluctant to use them. As technology has improved, virtual tours have been easier to use, and in the last few years, the demand has boomed. In the same respect, 360 video is now starting to penetrate tourism content as better and more affordable video cameras become available to content creators, and this is leading to significant improvements in content quality.

2. Can you share how many types of virtual tours now and how they work?

Virtual tours are now commonplace in the commercial, tourism, hospitality, retail, real estate and education industries. With hotels and resorts, they can create virtual tours from architectural renders which are great to generate interest during the construction stages before shooting a full property tour later on. In the tourism market, DMCs and Tourism Associations have really embraced virtual tours to showcase the main attractions of their destination. Almost every major tourism board is now using them in one form or another. Good examples of the effective use of virtual travel resources are seen here in Vietnam but also in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and the Maldives. The use of 360 video is also rising exponentially for destination marketing, either as standalone content for YouTube, or incorporated in virtual tours.

Outside of traditional virtual tours that simply display an environment such as a hotel or destination, tourism activities that are normally experienced in person have gone virtual. Known as “virtual holidays”, examples include guided city tours, virtual cooking classes, museum or art gallery virtual visits, tours of Unesco sites and even virtual concert tickets. Virtual holidays are something I see high growth in even after the pandemic subsides but they will become a supplement to traditional tourism experiences rather than a replacement.

3. As the demand has rising, how virtual tours shake up the tourism and hospitality industry? Has there been any significant change because of Covid-19?

Since last year, long periods of lockdown have resulted in people spending more time online dreaming about when they can next have a vacation, resulting in a lot of pent-up demand. As a result, it has certainly increased the desire of companies & destinations to commit to using virtual tours but they do face tough financial restrictions due to the impact of Covid-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the hospitality industry realized quickly that virtual tours could be effective in converting the large segment of potential guests who like to do very thorough research when choosing a vacation hotel. Having a full walkthrough of the property in high resolution leads to increased booking conversions so virtual tours gradually progressed from being a nice marketing feature for hotels to an indispensable tool in the marketing media mix. Moreover, the quality of the photography used and advances in software capabilities mean that modern virtual tours are highly interactive, containing not just panoramic photos but a host of other media including video and 360 video, live guides and avatars, AR (Augmented Reality) and even gamification.

Now, they are becoming more and more like a mini website within your website, where the 360 photography merely serves as the background to the interactive elements and content displayed on top. This is also a very exciting part of our work as new features are being developed all the time to improve the experience. As attention spans drop year on year due to an overload of media online, virtual tours are one area actually showing an increase in engagement and the average viewing time of a good virtual tour is higher than any other form of content. Ultimately, this is its main purpose – to encourage engagement with your brand!

For the destination, Virtual Tours tap into the desire to travel freely again by allowing people to imagine themselves at a beautiful destination, stepping into a plush room, exploring an ancient temple or relaxing on a sunbed at a faraway beach resort. They can explore the scenes at their own pace, and interact with the environment and destination in a way that photography and video doesn’t allow. From our work with the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, we found that our virtual tours of Vietnam’s Unesco sites, cities and cultural sites were the best performing media on the www.vietnam.travel website in 2020. I guess this makes logical sense – if you are restricted from traveling, the lure of a vacation leads you to consume more media related to that.

4. To strike the best result, what should hoteliers and DMOs keep in mind when working with the production team to create the optimal digital content?

When creating a virtual tour, I always advise clients to think in terms of layers of engagement. How do we make the viewer spend as much time engaging with your brand as possible? The key is giving them lots of things to discover in every 360 panoramas.

5. What do you think about the future of virtual tours in tourism marketing?

In the short term, I see virtual travel increasing in popularity simply due to the current state of the industry. Recovery forecasts for global tourism are unpredictable at best as we struggle to come to terms with new waves and mutations of the Coronavirus. This will lead to more people turning to virtual travel to satisfy their wanderlust. It will also push the technology forward at a much faster rate resulting in better applications and experiences. Virtual tours that you view on a screen such as your laptop or cellphone will continue to become ubiquitous in any industry that wishes to show off facilities, products and services. As video and 360 video become easier to shoot and compress, we will see them overtake photography as the main components of virtual tours, particularly in hospitality and tourism content.

Virtual reality experiences are ultimately where the full potential and future lies. Major online players like Facebook, Google and Amazon are continuing to invest very heavily in VR headsets and content, and this suggests a very bright future for companies who move into this space. Technology will quickly make VR travel more accessible and realistic and will include things like VR travel experiences for the elderly, highly immersive destination experiences, virtual airlines and cruises, concerts and even sporting events. In the not too distant future, I believe that travelers will regularly access virtual tours of hotels and destinations, and being able to seamlessly book flights, accommodation and activities through VR travel agents and OTAs. It’s a very interesting time to be in this industry and I look forward to seeing its evolution in the coming decade!

Thank you very much for your sharing!

TAKE-A-SIP | Is this the right time to switch into digital content, especially virtual tours in tourism marketing?

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