Imagine you're standing in a busy hotel lobby. Guests are at reception with their luggage, eager to check in. Others are on their way out, moving through sliding doors and getting into cars. You see the porters hauling carts of suitcases. You see businesspeople sitting in the common areas with their laptops. Somebody rustles a newspaper and turns the page.
Now you're in a guest room. You've checked in, and you're sitting in the chair by the bed. You see the fixtures and features of the room clearly, from the configuration of furniture to the artwork on the walls. The truth is, something about the property is less than ideal. Maybe it's the color of the walls. Maybe the view out the window isn't quite what you hoped for. For a number of reasons, you decide you don't want to stay. What can you do?
Simply take off your virtual reality headset, come back to the real world, and decide not to book that particular hotel. Or, keep the goggles on and tell the system to show you other options. Allow yourself to be whisked away to another lobby, another fitness centre, another guest room.
If you're wondering when the hotel industry is going to catch on, you're a little late. Booking giant Expedia has already placed a sizable bet on VR booking. They've gone so far as to make Hollywood producer Scott Rudin a member of their board of directors.
The experience has limitations — for example, you can't very well move around the virtual world (aside from turning your head) since you would bump into real objects and end up hurting yourself. But the commercial applications are profound, particularly for travel and accommodation. The fact that guests will soon be able to sit quietly in a guest room on the other side of the world, and explore other areas of the hotel before deciding whether or not to book, has far-reaching implications — particularly where truth in advertising is concerned. When a guest has made a virtual visit to your hotel and soaked in all the detail there, you'd better make sure the reality lives up to the hype.
Much has been said about the rise of VR and what it means for hotels, and it's all very thought provoking. However, I think there's a simpler lesson to be learned. The guest now has the ability to visit your hotel without leaving home. And this means that the hotelier now has the ability to stand in a guest's shoes! Imagine having the ability to see what they see, hear what they hear, even feel what they feel?
It won't be long before we see VR training programs in many industries, including our own. Imagine sending your new hires into a virtual hotel experience where curt and unhelpful staff make things difficult — it's too good to pass up! This would be a powerful way to show team members how the guest experience is affected by little things.
The reality is however that you don't need a fancy headset to do this. Being able to envision the guest experience is a state of mind. The fact that guests are able to absorb so much detail before they book a hotel is an opportunity for hoteliers to flip the script. The more we train ourselves to vividly imagine the experience we provide to guests, the better we're able to adapt.
Empathy: The only VR headset you need
Virtual reality aside, there has been plenty of commentary in recent years about the power of empathy in business, including this 2013 article by Forbes. It's argued that empathy — the ability to visualize the stresses and problems of others — is one of the basic driving factors of success.
It's easy to see the truth of this argument, particularly when it comes to running a hotel. But how often do managers and other team members really practice empathy? How often are we stuck in our heads, reviewing our own problems to no end, without really imagining what the guest experience is like?
As VR and 360 degree photography become more widespread, the impact will increase in ways we can't even know. But perhaps the most powerful thing VR can teach us is the power of leaving our own experience behind for a while, and stepping into someone else's shoes. And amazingly, we actually don't need a headset to do it. In fact, the more we imagine ourselves in the guest shoes, the more we'll realize that the guest experience is quite real indeed.