by Michael J. Shapiro | October 01, 2008
shearton web 2 
 mandalay web
 westin web
Online tours (from top):
Sheraton Hacienda del Mar
via Virtual Planner,
Mandalay Bay via MotionVR,
Westin Los Cabos via Virtual Planner
The sky-high cost of fuel is causing some companies to redefine essential travel. As a result, site inspections might have to hold up to closer scrutiny. With heightened pressure to cut costs, planners could be pressed to explore ways to evaluate a property — at least in the early stages of consideration — without getting on a plane.

At the same time, an increasing number of hotels and other venues are tricking out their websites with virtual tours. But just how useful is this to someone planning a meeting?

"It's always better to do a physical site inspection," insists Washington, D.C.-based meetings and hospitality consultant Joan Eisenstodt, although she is a vocal proponent of cutting-edge technology. Obviously, she notes, there are things you can't tell virtually: "You can't tell if there's a musty smell to the hotel. You can't see how staff interacts, either with guests or with each other. You can't tell if there are bleed-through air walls. You can't look under the bed to see if there are fleas. There are things that, at least in my lifetime, I don't think we'll be able to do virtually."

Ideally, a virtual tour should at least help to refine one's list of candidates, says meetings technology consultant Corbin Ball. "They're not used as much as I would hope they would be," adds the Bellingham, Wash.-based principal of Corbin Ball Associates. "But from a meeting planner's standpoint, I think the big questions about a new facility are, ‘Is this going to work for my group? Is it big enough? Does it have the capacity? What is it like?' " Virtual tours can be particularly helpful in answering those questions before deciding which venues merit a physical visit, notes Ball.

Degrees of usefulness

Unfortunately, the term virtual tour has no agreed-upon standard definition; it can range from a 360-degree photo to video tours to virtual-world 3-D modeling in Second Life, and everything in between. Obviously, the value of a virtual site inspection will vary considerably according to the technology employed and how it's used by the venue.

Worth noting, however, are the new approaches some properties are taking. While smelling the room must still be done in person, the online inspection experience could be more revealing than one might expect.

The 360-degree image tours have been around for years, but they've become progressively easier for properties to produce and for planners to view online. These "panoramic" views allow the viewer to pan or tilt through the environment using a mouse or keyboard arrow keys. In the past, specialized browser plug-ins often were required to view the images; today, most such tours can be viewed with a minimum of fuss.

Quality varies considerably and is heavily dependent on how the panoramic image is "stitched" together and how much wide-angle distortion there is in the photo. "In a sense," says Eisenstodt, "it's a step up from looking at a flat brochure. At least you can see what the room looks like, you can see pillars." But scale can be hard to gauge due to distortion, along with the fact that these tours are usually devoid of people.

"I look at these big rooms with all these chairs set up," says Eisenstodt, "and it tells me nothing. I don't see bodies in those chairs. A room with chairs is not what I'm interested in."