When a multi-billion-dollar industry responsible for influencing more minds than probably any other on the planet borrows its name from your city, it’s going to be tough to shake those associations. So when Visit West Hollywood – the tourism board responsible for marketing the City of West Hollywood’s “unique location, image, businesses and industries” (plural – say what?!) – embarked upon its latest campaign, it did the only thing it could: it beat Hollywood at its own game.
We may be some way from being able to experience movie blockbusters in virtual reality, but travellers considering West Hollywood for their next jaunt will soon be able to get a truly immersive taste for the city without ever having to board a flight – and it’s all thanks to the virtual reality pioneers at YouVisit.
Founded by three entrepreneurs who shared a passion for travelling – Taher Baderkhan, Abi Mandelbaum and Endri Tolka – YouVisit was conceived to empower anyone to be inspired by and vividly explore the world as if they were actually there. Their first venture was to revolutionise how students research U.S. colleges and universities, enabling them to virtually step onto any campus and get the best understanding of what it’s like to be a student at the school.
Fast forward seven years and the boys, now all tie-wearing and grown up, have on their hands a multi-million dollar business creating virtual reality tours for Harvard, Hewlett-Packard, Zumba – and now Visit West Hollywood.
If you’re wondering how a technology you’ve only ever associated with gaming could possibly be worth that much cash, then consider this: “VR is exploding, similar to what mobile did seven years ago,” says YouVisit CEO Mandelbaum. Remember mobile – that platform that sprung up faster than you could say “It’ll never catch on” to become the marketing monster it is today? According to Mandelbaum, that’s where VR is headed.
“Virtual reality is the most realistic experience you can have of a place without being there. It’s powerful. It gets people excited and engaged and interested in having that experience in real life,” he explains. What’s more, according to YouVisit’s Virtual Reality Appetite Index one in five (19 per cent) American adults said they would use virtual reality to help pick a vacation destination.
But if you can get the vacation experience without the associated jet lag of actually making the trip (not to mention a significantly reduced bank balance), then why bother? Could there be a danger that offering a virtual reality experience of your destination could actually satisfy travellers enough to deter rather then encourage them to visit? Mandelbaum doesn’t think so. When YouVisit set up tents in Manhattan, where more than 1,000 visitors used VR headsets to experience a Carnival cruise, “the reactions were incredible. They would say, ‘I didn’t know I could do all that on a cruise.’ Once they see what it’s like, they’re more inclined to book.”
In fact, from a business standpoint, says Mandelbaum, virtual reality is powerful marketing. A typical visitor to YouVisit spends more than 10 minutes engaged in the VR experience – “an eternity” in the digital world – and 13 per cent of them take some action afterwards, such as booking a hotel room or reserving a table at a restaurant. “We’ve understood for a while that virtual reality has applications outside gaming. The power is not in escaping to a fantasy world, but in bringing real-world experiences to everyone,” he goes on.
For Visit West Hollywood’s part, they’re utilising the technology in an attempt to dismiss the two-dimensional fantasy of Hollywood that so many people imagine. Yes, the Walk of Fame, Hollywood Sign, Universal Studios and TCL Chinese Theatre are all good fun, but Visit West Hollywood wants the world to know that there’s more to their town than dreams of screen stardom and too-white teeth.
In partnership with YouVisit, they’re creating a campaign that juxtaposes multiple perspectives and locations to highlight the diversity West Hollywood has to offer. In fully immersive 360-degree virtual reality, the viewer will meet ten different West Hollywood locals in ten very different areas of the city – from designer stores and hotel bars, to rooftop vistas and public spaces, to the Pacific Design Center and Sunset Strip. Yes, some of these people and locations are iconic; but many are more unexpected, chosen for their historical or cultural significance – or, in some cases, simply because they’re cool.
The viewer – or, more accurately, the “experiencer” – also hears sound bites from the locals as voiceover, giving insight on the history, where the town is going and what they love about living in WeHo, as they fondly call it. Crucially, the experiencer is always at eye level, which allows them to make a personal connection with someone in relation to the space around them at every location. And there lies the value of VR: the ability to layer information in such an immersive way that the viewer feels both mentally and emotionally invested; not to mention the fact that virtual reality quite literally creates a captive audience(!).
But for the travel industry, the potential of VR technology doesn’t end with promoting destinations. Take the hotel business center, for example: once upon a time, a lone desktop computer and printer was sufficient to equip the odd remote worker; but in an age where telecommuting is becoming more and more prolific, virtual reality may be the next big thing for connecting co-workers in different time zones.
As COO of YouVisit Tolka suggests, “VR stations in the business center will not only help hotels differentiate themselves from their competition but also provide an additional revenue stream with minimal investment. Visitors could come to your L.A.-based hotel with the purpose of attending meetings physically nearby for the morning, but then have the ability to check in on a job site in Chicago and attend a meeting in NYC, all before having dinner with a new partner back in L.A.”
Maybe, one day, people might even virtually attend travel trade events… And miss out on the parties? Naahh!
To learn more about YouVisit and Visit West Hollywood, visit FRINGE on the LE show floor. Home to the hottest rebels in travel tech and innovation, it’s a hub of ideas and inspiration.