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Although consumer access to virtual reality equipment is still fairly limited, these hospitality brands are leveraging the technology in novel ways, all in the hopes of telling new stories to their guests.

While it’s still debatable whether virtual reality is having a wider impact on travelers — primarily because few seem to have access to high-quality VR equipment — that’s not stopping hospitality brands from using it to market to consumers.

Dubai-based Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts and London-based St Giles Hotels are two such brands using virtual reality technology to engage with consumers.

In a June Marketing Week poll of 1,117 U.K. adults, 56 percent of respondents said they’d like to experience travel when using virtual reality. However, that same poll also noted 46 percent of respondents believe they “can’t see any practical use in VR for people like me.”

Jumeirah Inside

In November 2015, Jumeirah, in cooperation with Google, launched Jumeirah Inside. Using 360-degree video footage and photography, the site allows guests to make hotel bookings and see what it’s like to stay at one of Jumeirah’s properties, including the iconic Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai.

What makes this particular experience different from others is the deep level of immersion it allows users to have, especially with the Burj Al Arab, which has the most amount of 360-degree content of Jumeirah’s hotels. The combination of film footage and interactive 360-degree photography, what Jumeirah calls “360-degree spheres,” makes this feel much more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill virtual hotel tour. By clicking on “hotspots” you can learn more information about the hotel, or see certain features up close. The platform is also available in five languages.

“The reason we decided to do something like this was because, as the digital consumer or traveler evolves, they are looking, more and more, for rich content,” said Robyn James O’Connor, group director of brand marketing for Jumeirah. “We also believe that providing rich, great content to consumers will help them with their travel-making process, and it helps us with the conversion process. We didn’t try to replicate the standard website we already have; we wanted to give them content they wouldn’t find on the standard site so they can learn more about the brand, and be inspired.”

She added, “We know brand awareness for Jumeirah is not as strong as it is in the Middle East in other regions of the world. With Jumeirah Inside, we’re creating awareness of our properties and our brand on a global scale.”

The site seems to be working well in terms of driving more direct bookings for Jumeirah. Sixteen weeks after the initial launch of Jumeirah Inside, the company saw its best revenue performance on its brand website in more than a year. O’Connor also said guests who visited the site were 2.5 times more likely to book a stay than those who had not been on the platform.

Google Brand Lift Surveys have also shown 95 percent lift in ad recall in the U.K. market and 25 percent lift in brand consideration in the United Arab Emirates market.

Nine months after the launch, Jumeirah is making it easier for its guests to experience the 360-degree video in virtual reality. During the fourth quarter of this year, Google Cardboard devices will be placed in guest rooms at select properties so guests can experience Jumeirah Inside in virtual reality by downloading the Jumeirah Inside mobile app on their smartphones, and placing the phone inside the device. Jumeirah’s sales and development teams will also use the app and Google Cardboard devices in their meetings with investors, developers, and clients.

Looking ahead, O’Connor said the site will continually be updated with new content, and the company is also considering a larger focus on China toward the end of the year.

St Giles Be Central 360

In March, London-based St Giles Hotels debuted its new brand campaign, “Be Central, Be St Giles,” emphasizing the central locations and connectedness of its nine properties in the U.S., UK, Malaysia, Australia, and the Philippines. Building on that campaign, the company is currently embarking on a user-generated virtual reality campaign, called Be Central 360.

Unlike most travel and hospitality brands that have produced their own 360-degree and virtual reality content, St Giles is placing Samsung Gear 360 virtual reality cameras in the hands of guests, allowing them to capture and share their own experiences of what it’s like to stay in a St Giles property.

To do the filming, St Giles picked a handful of social influencers and this spring, St Giles also held an online “casting call” for travelers who are planning to be in London, New York City, Sydney, Makati, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang from June 27 to July 22. They could apply and film their own travel experience in those cities, as well as enjoy a free night’s stay. Virtual reality footage from all of the travelers will be released later this fall.

For St Giles, virtual reality is an ideal medium for communicating its brand messaging.

“With virtual reality, viewers are not merely observing; they are immersed in the moment, at the center of the experience,” Abigail Tan, head of St Giles Hotels, Europe, United Kingdom, and United States. “Similarly, when you stay at a St Giles hotel, you’re not merely in a city; you’re at the heart of it. Even those viewing the 360-degree videos on their phone, Youtube, or Facebook, can experience the complete 360-degree experience of these moments.”

Tan said the hotel company will promote the campaign on social media channels, and that the videos may also be used as a sales tool as well as a local guide, on site, for guests staying at St. Giles hotels. She added that the company will also “design in-hotel events to bring the VR experience to our guests with VR headsets.”

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Tags: jumeirah, marketing, virtual reality

Photo credit: One of the travelers chosen to shoot 360-degree/virtual reality content for St. Giles Hotels' Be Central 360 campaign tests out his Samsung Gear 360 camera for filming in New York City. Scott Duvall / @jawavifilms on Instagram

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