by John Conroy | July 01, 2017

With a few mouse clicks, you can find yourself strolling through historic Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Click again and you’re touring the Warner Bros. Studio backlot in Burbank. Click once or twice more and you’re at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade or cycling on the Venice Beach bike path.

These kinetic scenes are some of the more than 50 locations featured on the new virtual reality platform of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board’s website. The tool, developed in partnership with XplorIt, is “the most comprehensive virtual tour of any destination in the world,” said Darren Green, senior vice-president of sales for the organization, which launched Virtual Discovery L.A. at IMEX America 2016. Green said that L.A. Tourism is the first destination marketing organization to offer a virtual travel platform specifically for meeting professionals. It can be viewed normally on a variety of devices—desktops, smartphones, laptops—or experienced using a VR enhancer such as Google Cardboard.

“The feedback from our meeting professional community has been simply phenomenal,” said Green. “Planners can directly access some of the most popular L.A. destinations through virtual, 360-degree tours without needing to jump on a plane to do a full site inspection, which has proved to be an incredible benefit and has elevated the destination’s planning process. It’s much more seamless, simplified and stress-free.”

Toward that end, DMOs are tapping technological innovations to drum up business in all the markets they serve, especially meetings and conventions. In addition to virtual reality—an area exploding with interest—destinations are continuing to invest in Wi-Fi infrastructure and, in some cases, are hiring people to perform data mining in order to get a more accurate picture of who is visiting and who might visit in the future.

 

Virtual Advancement

Another California convention and visitors bureau, Visit Anaheim, also uses virtual reality as an educational and promotional tool when wooing meeting and convention professionals. Charles Harris, its senior vice-president of marketing, said the platform enables the sales team to better showcase messaging points to meeting planners and their clients. Featured selling points for the city include the convention center’s proximity to three major hotels and walking distance to restaurants, all of which “you can see from high above” using the VR tool, he said.

For those unfamiliar with Anaheim, the VR tours offer “a great opportunity to experience it before you ever get there,” he said. But the benefits don’t stop with new visitors; instead of having to explain recent developments such as four-diamond hotels and Dis-neyland’s expansion to those who already know Anaheim well, interested parties can now view the properties and the way the city’s layout has changed.

As with Los Angeles, feedback on the meeting and convention side has been positive, Harris said. And Visit Anaheim plans to eventually introduce the tool to travel agents and consumers who haven’t been to the city or want to come back and see what’s new.

The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau launched its version of virtual tours, ATL360, in August 2016 at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City. The debut generated a positive response from the attendees, said Mark Vaughan, the bureau’s executive vice-president and chief sales officer. He noted a significant increase in the number of visitors at the bureau’s booth compared with previous years.

In March, the Atlanta CVB added three new VR tours. They “reflect the needs we wanted to address for meeting planners and potential attendees,” said Andrew Wilson, the organization’s executive vice-president and chief marketing officer. New tours include a mock site visit, an exploration of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority campus and nearby after-hours entertainment or a tour of five different Atlanta neighborhoods. The footage also takes in the Midtown Mile and an aerial view of Centennial Olympic Park.

Viewers can watch the tours using VR goggles, or a version of the app that doesn’t require an additional viewing device is available for iOS and Android phones. There’s also a companion tablet app that allows sales managers to curate what the potential client is doing and answer questions. “The tablets are set up to show the ‘drivers’ of the virtual reality experiences exactly what viewers are seeing while wearing the headsets,” Wilson said. “We can make marks on the tablet that appear on screen for the viewers, so we can point them in a certain direction or call out a specific landmark on their tour.” Alternately, viewers who want to know the name of a certain restaurant while taking the tablet’s virtual neighborhood tour could show the driver exactly where they’re looking so the driver can answer the question, he said.

 

The Right Way

Like many popular products on the market, there are standard versions and then there are versions that hit all the marks. Wilson said his group opted for the latter. “We originally put a hold on creating our virtual-reality and 360-degree photography tools because we were not able to find anyone who could execute it to our high level of expectation,” he said. “We wanted our images and tours to be seamless high-resolution and able to be viewed on both web and mobile.” The Atlanta CVB eventually hired Fabio Musio of 100 Digital Creativity in Atlanta for its VR platform. Musio, said Wilson, “delivered an exceptional product, and his investigation into using gigapixel images pushed our tours over the top.”

Harris said Visit Anaheim took the time to explore its options as well. “We looked at a lot of different platforms to see what others were doing with VR and how they were introducing it,” he said. “Some of the VR is like a point-and-click technology, and you move yourself through that.” In the end, the organization decided to use video shot using a maximum resolution of 8K. “The standard currently is 4K. We’re a bit advanced. And we should be able to have this content around for a while.”

There are guidelines for using virtual reality to maximize its effectiveness as a marketing tool, according to Musio. He suggests focusing on narrating a story and using imagery with a message behind it. “Repurposing the imagery is also a must,” he said. DMOs looking to hire a VR company should find one with storytelling capabilities, previous experience, the right technology and good preparation, said Musio. He added that 90 percent of his clients are DMOs. “Lots of DMOs are investing in the technology, sometimes producing in-house but most of the time outsourcing.”

 

Data Mining

DMOs are also tapping other technologies to promote business. In December, Visit Wichita hired a data analyst to mine the mountains of information the DMO gathers from its website visitors. The analyst, William Graves, is a Wichita, Kansas, native who formerly worked as a research scientist at the Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University. His new position requires him to use many of the same research skills from his previous job: examining and analyzing data and then “basically trying to make a story” out of it, he said.

“We have data from so many different sources, and we need to be able to interpret them and actually look at them and tell where our visitors are coming from and what’s bringing them here,” Graves said. “That’s going to be important if we want to move forward and to grow.”

When it comes to data, virtually nothing is excluded. “We’re going to try to grab everything we can,” Graves said. “We want demographic data. We want to try to capture people’s behavior. We want to try to understand what happens when someone comes to our site or our next step when someone sees an ad.”

Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita, calls Graves’ skills “absolutely invaluable” and said data analysis allows mid-tier cities such as Wichita to stay competitive. The DMO’s goal, she said, “is to be a good steward of the dollars we’ve been entrusted. It’s all about data-based decisions.” And with more data becoming available to those in her industry, Santo believes this trend is on the upswing. “We’ll start to see this more in the future,” she said; the dollars spent on research “are every bit as important as the actual dollars that we use for marketing.”

Since his arrival, Graves has added numerous points for data examination on the group’s website. “It’s not like there’s one piece of data that’s going to be our silver bullet, that’s going to solve the question of ‘How do we get people to come to town?’” The analyst said he can review various aspects of user interest such as how long someone stays on the page, what parts of the page they spend the most time exploring and what areas they click on for more information. “We’re even getting some ‘tell’ data where we can see who’s booking, how far in advance they’re booking and where they’re booking from,” he said.

Graves said it can take up to two months to gather the volume of information needed to make strategic decisions. “If, in a week’s time, I get only 30 or 40 points of data, I wouldn’t want to make any changes off of that. I wouldn’t want to make any estimations because I wouldn’t be certain if that really was an indicator of our actual visitor population,” he said.

This new data-mining capability, however, has led to some early discoveries. Cynthia Wentworth, Visit Wichita’s vice-president of marketing, said the analysis has enabled them “to pinpoint our content in a much more direct way than we have in the past, based on our findings.”

When enough data is collected, trends emerge. “A lot of what we’re able to do will not just be beneficial now and next week but certainly into the future,” she said, imagining the implications on advertising effectiveness and the type of research conducted for marketing campaigns.

Early data has revealed that the majority of visitors to the Visit Wichita website are female, said Wentworth. Data sets also show that its target market consists of visitors between 25 and 54 years old. “And from the behavioral standpoint, we’ve learned that we can take simple data like that and break that down even further” to determine who is interested in cultural events versus family-friendly events, she said.

 

Faster Networks

Meanwhile, several hundred miles east, Indianapolis civic officials hope the city benefits from a major technological advancement by AT&T. In early February, the telecommunications giant announced that Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, had been selected to be its first “5G Evolution” markets, in which upgraded wireless networks will be able to transmit data at top speeds of 400 megabits per second—20 times faster than today’s speeds.

“It’s going to help us on a number of levels that go beyond convention business, just establishing that Indianapolis is a technologically advanced place,” said Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy.

An AT&T official said the city was selected for several reasons, including the state’s regulatory environment and the fact that officials allowed the telecommunications company to place the mini-cells—devices that are smaller than cell phone towers but more powerful than wireless routers—within the mile square of downtown Indianapolis. The city’s emerging tech scene was another factor, Hoops said. “Some people are starting to call this area the heart of ‘Silicon Prairie,’” said Hoops.

Being a rollout city for the 5G network will give Indianapolis a window of “maybe a year to 18 months” before other cities catch up in terms of connectivity, Hoops said. He noted that users will have to be on AT&T’s network to take advantage of the lightning-fast gigabyte downloads when the network is up and running by year’s end.

“I’m pragmatic about this as opposed to overly idealistic in thinking there’s more to it than there is,” Hoops said. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the 5G network is “a good selling point” and branding opportunity. A high-tech reputation is “valuable to Indy in the long run in attracting corporate meetings and associations or trade shows that are involved in tech, to have that kind of reputation,” he said. A high-tech trade show is a prime example of an event Indianapolis might snag.

Hoops likes to use Gen Con, the world’s longest-running gaming convention, scheduled to return to Indy in August, as an event that will profit from the technology upgrade in town. “The folks who play role-playing games and board games will benefit. My suspicion is a lot of game-makers in that world will probably be early adopters of 5G-level types of technology to incorporate into gaming,” he said. “I would expect certain events like that are going to be more apt to want to test what that means.”

 

Real Business

VR and other technologies are helping cities market their destinations in ways that never before seemed possible. By tapping into these advancements, cities on the forefront of technology are hoping to turn their virtual visitors into real-life visitors in the years to come. •