As the travel industry awaits the new normal, and hopefully the old normal once again, technology, which in itself requires no mask and is subject to no travel restrictions, has been moving along at its standard exponential rate of growth. From the simplest Zoom meeting to the most advanced virtual reality experience, the irrepressive nature of humankind is once again adapting to its environment. Like the virus itself, the travel industry mutates to allow for its most basic survival elements: communication, connection, and travel.
In 2020, the pandemic injured the travel industry, but also gave rise to a new form of adventurous experience – virtual reality. The pandemic did not spearhead VR technology. In fact, many companies and industry leaders were using virtual reality as soon as it became available and applicable to travel. For instance, Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas offers Sky Pad, a virtual reality bungee trampoline experience where guests can dress for reality, but also don VR headsets and choose between three immersive games – Jump Rally, Sugar Leap, and Bass Bouncer.
Royal Caribbean’s chairman and CEO, Richard Fain, in an interview with the AListDaily, said, “People want their technology integrated, and the ubiquity of the smartphone allows us to have technology available to anyone at anytime so they can use it as they want.” These words were made into reality during the marketing campaign of 2018 where the company recreated the on-ship experience at the immense Duggal Greenhouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, NY to illustrate how new technology is changing the entire cruise experience.
The virtual experience/media event foreshadowed the world we know today. Ahead of its time, Royal Caribbean demonstrated how facial recognition and cell phone location monitoring helps get travelers safely on board and supervises them once the anchor is raised. Today, more with an eye for sanitary practices than just streamlining a process, Royal Caribbean announced the technology of their digital key. Guests can unlock staterooms with their smartphones by downloading a digital key, available in just a few taps for select ships and staterooms.
Likewise, hotels and destinations have been and are using VR technology as marketing tools, offering prospective customers and clients virtual tours prior to the sale. For example, prior to a life-changing journey to Dubai, Atlantis, The Palm offers a VR tour that starts at the luxurious entrance, moving through the grand lobby with pillars in a palm tree design and running fountains and moving through the Royal Bridge Suite which boasts three bedrooms, high ceilings, library, media and game room, and a dining room fit for 16 people. Best of all is the 360 degree view of the Arabian Sea and the Dubai skyline.
The Poseidon Underwater Suite lends itself perfectly to a virtual tour as it seems beyond reality to book a stay in a room that equates to living inside an aquarium. For a deeper dive, the property offers scuba and snorkeling experiences, most of which do not require certification. For the non swimmers of the world, a virtual tour of this feature might be preferable to reality. For those who want to face their fears, this Aquatrek experience uses state-of-the-art underwater helmets that enable the guest to breathe amidt 65,000 creatures. There are three adventures: Shark Safari, Aquatrek Extreme and Aquatrek at Night.
Zoom has seen its usage increase with leaps and bounds, or more accurately, with features and bandwidth. In terms of the world of travel, Zoom has allowed business partners and potential customers to stay within reach of each other. The platform opened up a world of possibility that did not previously exist. Meetings could be scheduled without companies having to send representatives to foreign locations, plan hotel stays, and pay for three martini lunches. Casual attire was more acceptable, and even fake backdrops depicting famous landmarks were an extra perk.
However, there was a learning curve, and Zoom mishaps became fodder for satire on shows such as Saturday Night Live, and on creative commercials for companies such as Progressive Insurance. Despite the on camera embarrassing moments that have undoubtedly gone viral, Zoom and other web-meeting platforms were the prophylactic ways for people to still feel connected and even laugh a bit through a tragic and challenging time.
Like most reactions to tragedy, there is a fulcrum, a double-edged sword cutting and protecting simultaneously. Though in-person experiences offer all five senses at once, place the traveler outside of his/her familiar, and thrill within the true spirit of exploration, one must appreciate the value of virtual reality, especially at times like these. It is sort of like a fun babysitter; while we wait for normal to return, it is pretty entertaining and certainly novel.