The hotel industry’s next tech target: virtual, augmented reality programs

Gamification is a powerful driver in nearly every industry. Video game developer Niantic definitively proved the concept when it launched Pokémon Go earlier this summer, gamifying the act of walking around by turning public spaces into interactive locations. The technology has arrived, and it’s now up to the hospitality industry to determine its place.

Best Western Hotels & Resorts has been a willing participant in the implementation of both augmented and virtual reality devices on both the guest-facing side of the business as well as back of house. Dorothy Dowling, SVP and chief marketing officer at Best Western, said the company first partnered with Disney years ago to develop an augmented reality program for younger guests, and in 2015 came out with a new AR experience paired with the Disney Movie Experience.

“Children were able to use technology to include themselves in scenes with stars from Disney movies, something that would have been impossible to do otherwise,” Dowling said.

Time of Yore—Now

Andrew Feinberg, co-founder of Timelooper, a mobile app designed to re-create historical locations and overlay them atop existing sites, sees hotels as a prime market for the augmented reality business model. Timelooper currently re-creates events such as the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London’s Trafalgar Square, where crowds of people and the coach motorcade are directly on top of the street for a traveler’s viewing pleasure. The thought process behind such technology, according to Feinberg, is that travelers journey to a destination with the goal of immersing themselves in culture, but are often underwhelmed by the commercialization of travel. Timelooper allows these guests to experience a destination’s most significant events.

Hotels are a natural fit for augmented reality, considering their position as community hubs.

But the technology does have limitations. Augmented reality involves placing a graphical overlay over existing locations using a device’s built-in camera. The process has evolved significantly since its inception, but is still lacking a level of precision that developers are hoping for.

“Every time you move your hand up and down, the actors and video overlay will shake in relation to the background, taking you out of the experience,” Feinberg said. “AR has a bit more to go. VR is generally already there.”

The Virtual Wall

Evidence of VR’s usefulness is already evident in a back-of-the-house training program that Best Western finished rolling out earlier this year. But while it’s easy for a hotel to buy a single VR headset and set it up for training purposes, finding a way to market VR to guests is trickier due to the high cost to entry for the average consumer. Niantic’s greatest asset when developing Pokémon Go was the knowledge that every one of its users would already own a mobile phone; in order to utilize VR, you often have to buy an entire device. Depending on the quality, VR headsets can range from $100 to thousands of dollars, but that isn’t stopping hotels from seeking opportunities in the space.


Jonathan Wilson, VP of product innovation and brand services for Hilton Worldwide, said he has plans to introduce VR to hotel fitness rooms. Hilton partnered with technology developer Intel to use Real Synth camera technology to project an avatar of a guest in space. From there, the device can overlay an experience on top of a workout, such as swapping the hotel fitness room for a wooded path or city streets while riding an exercise bike. Wilson said VR creates more transparency by allowing prospective guests and developers a glimpse at a model or public area through the use of interactive models.

“Can we show you what an ocean suite looks like before you book? Can we show owners what a model brand may look like? Can we get instant feedback on an environment or investment? With VR we can,” Wilson said.

Long-Range Visit

“Imagine what a wedding looks like, or what the lobby feature wall looks like decorated for a convention,” said Aron Ezra, CEO of content management developer OfferCraft. Ezra’s focus is on bringing gamification to hospitality, and he has found success in both the front- and back-of-house in hotels. “Realtors use this technology all the time to show off a house or a neighborhood. They use VR to help people feel the energy of a space and make a sale,” he said, adding that augmented and virtual reality have a future in hospitality, but currently it is the hip, millennial-focused properties that are adapting quickest.

“These things happen with starts and steps,” Ezra said. “You have a Pokémon Go that brings the technology to the [forefront], then a glut of games will appear followed by people tiring of it. But someone will think about it in a different way, and there will be a resurgence.”