Ai Editorial: How Cathay Pacific and Thomas Cook are looking at virtual reality?

First Published on 24th July, 2017

Ai Editorial: Travel e-commerce brands are exploring virtual reality or VR to offer travellers a feeling of ‘being’ in a place be it for an aircraft or a hotel. This is being enhanced with an element of interactivity, user-generated content etc., writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta


Being in a virtual space as if you’re actually there and indulging in something that lures you, excites you is a worthy experience.

For travellers, there are plenty of novel experiences that are emerging in the realm of virtually reality (VR).

For instance, a family having fun in an interactive virtual environment where each member is using their Facebook photos to customize their respective appearances. Or they can even explore a hotel or the experience of flying business class with an airline, where guests or passengers find themselves in a real-life situation and any query can be answered without leaving the virtual environment. Plus, the idea of completing a transaction, too, is a possibility.

New initiatives in travel

·          Cathay Pacific has launched their first interactive 360º video advertisement, enabling viewers to have a look at the airline’s first class cabin and interact with the setting. Robecta Ma, Vice-President Marketing, Americas at Cathay Pacific Airways, says this particular initiative was “borne out of the necessity to highlight our ground and in-flight experience to those who have not had access to our products”. She said, “We have been experiencing a lot of success with VR in large-scale events and conventions, where people can interact with our brand in a captive environment.”


·          Travel agency Ving (Thomas Cook Northern Europe) recently unveiled a new initiative featuring a virtual world Facebook Spaces (beta version launched in April this year). A place where users can meet friends and socialize, show 360-images etc. in a virtual world for guided tours. Movies have been produced to show some of Ving’s destinations and hotels, among them the ever popular Alcudia on Mallorca, as well as the Greek island of Lefkas. To visit Ving in Facebook Spaces, users need a Facebook profile and a particular VR-headset; Oculus Rift. “We want to be at the forefront of testing new technical solutions that will help take customer experience to the next level. Previously, a VR experience has been more ‘individualistic’ but now, through Facebook Spaces, we can bring a whole collective of people together in the virtual world. Recently, Facebook Spaces also launched live 360-degree video,” said Karin Eriksson, Social Media Manager, Ving Sverig. For Ving, the objective isn’t only to show content in an inspiring way, but also to enable interaction between more people in the VR world. “360-degree video will develop and become much more immersive as stereoscopic / volumetric video develops. Then we’ll get a real feeling of ‘being’ in a place,” she said.



Early days for VR marketing

VR headsets, which fit under mobile or tethered categories, have evolved. Specialists recommend standalone virtual reality apps, embedding VR content in a custom-built website, maximising the reach of such content etc. but all of this is still in its infancy. In one of its recent reports, Worldpay, referring to the readiness of virtual commerce, highlighted the discrepancy across markets. In a majority of developed economies, consumers aren’t ready for it. For instance, only 23% of Dutch consumers believe VR devices are secure for making payments. Whereas the figure shoots up to 59% in case of Chinese shoppers. The study also underlined that pricing of advanced headsets from Oculus and Vive, available for over $700, can be a deterrent for initiating any marketing campaign. Plus, the gap between VR manufacturers’ understanding of consumers vis-à-vis the sort of experiences that marketers intend to deliver also needs to be looked at.

“Even though the travel industry does embrace the benefits of VR as a means of enhancing a customer’s brand experience, the technology is still in its inchoate phase. Hence, most brands are still approaching this in a cautious manner. In our case, we want to make the Cathay Pacific lounge and flight experience accessible to everyone via the usage of VR, especially to those who have not had a chance to fly on our airline,” shared Ma. She added, “While there have been some really great destination focused videos, we haven’t seen as many brands in the travel space fully embrace VR’s potential. It remains to be an area of experimentation yet comes with limitless creativity.”

Eriksson also acknowledged that VR is in its nascent stages. “Consumer VR has only been around for a year, so some may be a bit skeptical about trying out new technical solutions and prefer until someone else has trialed it. That’s a big mistake I think. We prefer to test for ourselves. First on a small scale and then scaling up if the results are positive,” she said. As generally is the case with finalising a budget for marketing, companies generally follow the “70/20/10 Rule” or even “90/9/1” (with majority going to what’s been done over the past few years; next focus on something that has just gone mainstream and last part for testing new concepts/ technology and don’t expect a major RoI). So it is interesting where travel brands fit in VR in their plans as of now.

Eriksson also mentioned that Ving sees this as an investment for improving the tour operator’s business. “We already have Customer Service available through Facebook.  Through the use of Facebook Spaces we can now provide an extra service that will help assist our customers during the Search and Inspiration phase of their customer journey,” she said.

Points to consider

·          Be clear with the objective:  Ma also added that some marketers tend to focus on current trends and focus on executing something just to stay trendy. “It’s important to think through why we want to execute something new and be clear about what goals we want to accomplish,” she said. “It’s important to clarify the purpose of creating VR content, crystallize the storyline for the video, ensure the content be enticing enough for the audience and strategize ways of promoting the video effectively. For example, in our case via events, advertising etc.”  

·          Keep it simple: Ma highlighted that ease of consumption and simplicity are key. “Embracing new technology is already a daunting task hence we want to make sure our audiences/ customers can consume our content easily. The VR ads we are using for our current Hong Kong campaign can be easily viewed on mobile and desktop environments,” she said. As for the sort of preparation that went in for this new initiative, Ma said, “In the beginning stages, we spent a lot of time working on creative concepts and storyboarding for the video to ensure we have a compelling story to tell. While we are excited about what VR can do to enhance our content, it’s important for us that the video should not be presented as an ad but rather an authentic story about two travellers flying on Cathay Pacific from San Francisco to Hong Kong.”

Eriksson shared that a major challenge lies in “creating content that looks and feels as ‘realistic’ as possible, especially with the added constraint of no ‘off the shelf’ technology being available yet that can handle this in a satisfactory enough manner.” But in a few years, it will be possible, she expects.

·          Being open to experimentation: Eriksson shared that the team, led by IT engineer and internal VR guru Jonas Carlson Almqvist, has been experimenting and producing 360-degree videos for years, with all available to view on Google Streetview. “We’re still exploring ways on how to now make the next step in 360-degree video as there is great potential here to display travel content in a truly inspiring way,” she said. “It would have been a much more challenging and expensive test to run without this (approach towards continuous testing helped),” she said.

·          Measurement: A way to measure is expand the reach, assess coverage in media etc. “We made press releases in different languages, recorded video material (both long and short videos) and then we posted the posts in our social media channels. You can also register on a Guided Tour in Ving’s VR World via a form. Through these activities we can measure, for example, involvement in social media, film views, how many articles are written about us, etc.,” shared Eriksson.

It is important to keep an eye on improvement. “Technology is constantly evolving and the way we experience 360-degree content today will not be the same way we experience VR media in the future,” concluded Eriksson. 

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