The future of the travel agent: virtual reality, digital screens and ‘smell generators’

While lounging on a sunbed at the hotel before booking your holiday might have sounded a bit farfetched in the past, it’s now a (virtual) reality. Thomas Cook and Thomson tell Marketing Week how technology is helping travel agents to evolve.

TUI has today (7 July) said it will roll out its new concept store format to more than 120 travel agencies throughout Europe. They aim to “inspire” customers planning their next trip with interactive tools such as interactive world maps and iPads.

The move comes after Samsung’s head of European retail Vincent Slevin recently warned that “travel agents must embrace digital and virtual reality to survive”.

With immersive digital screens, virtual reality headsets and even smell generators that can replicate the smell of sand becoming more commonplace in travel agents on the high street, brands certainly seem open to change.

Using virtual reality to recreate holidays at home

Thomas Cook was one of the first to adopt virtual reality experiences having brought Samsung-powered headsets into its Bluewater shopping mall store last year.

Having donned a headset, customers can virtually fly over Manhattan, hit the sun lounger by the pool in Spain or visit a restaurant in Cyprus before committing hundreds of pounds on a holiday. Marco Ryan, chief digital officer for Thomas Cook, says the technology is not only boosting package holiday sales but also “integral” to the brand’s future strategy.

“Before travellers just had a brochure or information on the website to inform their choices. Virtual reality allows them to get a true sense of the hotel and the excursions they can go on – it’s been a real game changer for us.”

Thomas Cook's new store in Lakeside
Thomas Cook’s new store in Lakeside

He says one in 10 customers who try the headset at Bluewater go on to book holidays immediately after and that it is likely to be expanded across the majority of the estate.

Rival Thomson Holidays’ is also set to launch its own in-store VR experiences. Digital director Jeremy Osborne insists what will ensure its offering stands out is “avoiding gimmicks”.

“We’re not far off with VR, maybe a few months away and I think the distinction will be that our experience won’t be a one off PR gimmick,” says Osborne.

“The plan is to get Oculus Rift experiences for all of our flagship hotel brands as it can create powerful in-store theatre.”

Ryan, meanwhile, insists that Thomas Cook is backing VR for the long haul.

“It’s clear there’s a real momentum behind virtual reality and it’s here to stay – we want to film more and more experiences across our holiday locations to enhance choice for consumers.”

Marco Ryan, chief digital officer for Thomas Cook

“There is still a novelty factor at the moment, to be honest, but that will change as it becomes more of an everyday experience,” he adds.

Using immersive content

Thomson Travel, soon to be rebranded to parent TUI’s name, currently has 27 digital concept stores across its estate but is set to expand that to 120.

The stores contain a host of digital features including a next-generation storefront fitted with a large immersive video wall to showcase content and images of holidays.

Interactive maps and tablet tables are also based around the entrances for customers to research holidays and Thomson products. Osborne who says the new stores have exceeded sales targets and boosted footfall.

He said: “If people can come in and instantly see a rain forest in Costa Rica or the northern lights along with immersive sounds and aromas then it helps us ensure our physical space has something unique that online doesn’t.”

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Thomas Cook is letting consumers preview visits to the pool via virtual reality headsets

The Thomas Cook Group is targeting 50-60% of sales to be made online within three years across its markets, as it continues its digital transformation. However Ryan insists stores still have an important role to play.

He explains: “The advantage we have over Expedia or Amazon is the retail network – you can’t replicate the richness of our staff’s experience online.”

He says that converging the two worlds is key. He cites Thomas Cook’s use of Google cardboard to allow people to scan pictures from in-store brochures using their smartphone to download unique videos and information.

“You have to make stores relevant and be mindful that just because you had x amount of thousand stores in 1980 doesn’t mean you need that amount in 2015.

“In Germany retail is fundamental to the way people book holidays while in the Nordics it’s very small – I think Thomas Cook has to ensure the lines between online and in-store experiences blur.”

Thomson says it has a 50/50 split between online and retail sales.
Thomson says it has a 50/50 split between online and retail sales.

Osborne, who says that Thomson has a 50/50 split between online and in-store sales, agrees, adding: “I don’t think our retail estate will suddenly drop going forward as technology cannot replace people.

“We want to make sure we champion a combination of technology assisting with face to face experiences.”

The travel agent of the future

With travel brands already digitising and virtualising their offer, it’s hard to imagine how much further things can evolve but there certainly seems to be plenty of possibilities.

Tom McQueen UK MD at tech-focused agency Futurice ponders: “I think you can expect travel retailers to start to offer inexpensive equipment like Google Cardboard that will make holiday experiences available at home to the masses.

“In the future people might take ‘virtual holidays’ – experiences so deep and immersive there is no need to leave home.”

Thomson’s Osborne says it is currently looking at solutions for wearables and helping to improve smart TV experiences. This month he is running a “Digital Experience Week” at TUI’s UK headquarters utilising senior figures from the likes of Google and Facebook to get staff “thinking outside the box about holiday booking experiences”.

Thomas Cook’s Ryan also sounds excited about what could come next.

“There will be deals with the likes of Xbox so people can experience holidays through gaming at home and you’ll see people really collaborating and sharing in virtual groups,” he says.

“I think offering a social media travel agents is also a real possibility – a real living breathing store that’s online. Wearables can also help to better shape omnichannel experiences as they’re more focused on mobility than smartphones.”