Virtual reality is not only transforming the world of entertainment but travel too. New Globetrender contributor Ben Brown investigates how VR technology is being used to inspire potential jetsetters.

The butterflies in my stomach flutter wildly as I steal a glance downwards. We’re high above New York in a helicopter, confidently banking around the Empire State building, and I fight the urge to reach out and touch it. Looking up, there is a terrifying whir of blades, and I remind myself not to do that again.

From above, Central Park stretches out like a giant green footprint, slammed into the city. The iconic bridges like thread, stitching Manhattan to Long Island.

None of this is real, of course. It’s all just virtual reality images. If I take my headset off, I’m in Kent, in a busy Thomas Cook store at a grey retail centre.

According to the friendly agent, these virtual reality (VR) experiences are the future of the industry. They are the 21st-century travel brochure; only more immersive and experiential. I ask him if he worries it might one day replace travel entirely, that hooking up a VR headset might satisfy the urge to explore. “Of course not,” he replied.

In fact, this “Try Before You Fly” experience seems to have the opposite effect, actively encouraging travel. Thomas Cook’s head of digital content, Lynne Slowley, said: “Thomas Cook was the first company to deliver in-store virtual reality to customers, and we’ve seen a good conversion rate for bookings made after viewing the VR content”.

Indeed, their three month experiment with virtual reality lead to a 190 per cent increase in New York excursion bookings. And I can believe it. Within minutes, the agent and I are discussing the price of real helicopter trips, and I almost buy one.

Rather than satisfying the urge to travel, virtual reality charges it.

Travel teleportation

Thomas Cook isn’t the only company to experiment with virtual reality. Marriott Hotels has created 4D “teleporters” that whisk customers away to Hawaii. You are invited to stand inside a sensory booth, in which you’re treated to a warm breeze, sea spray, and the sounds of waves crashing against the shore. All the while, you’re hooked up to a virtual reality headset giving you 360 degree views of a golden Hawaiian beach. It’s the complete experience.

Marriott virtual reality transporter

It looks real – and feels real

Late last year, Marriott also introduced “VRoom Service” in selected hotels. Using the Marriott app, you can have a mysterious silver briefcase delivered to your room. It’s all very clandestine. Inside the briefcase is a virtual reality headset that drops you into the heart of Chile, Beijing and Rwanda. The idea is to encourage frequent and premium travellers to book their next escape.

In-flight virtual reality

Qantas took a similar approach, surprising business and first class travelers with virtual reality headsets on board selected planes last year. VR rigs were also set up in business class lounges at airports in Sydney and Melbourne.

This partnership with Samsung allowed premium customers to immerse themselves in several destinations on the Qantas network, as well as enjoy blockbuster films in panoramic view during the flights.

Qantas virtual reality

Sit back and enjoy the ride

Qantas executive for brand, marketing and corporate affairs, Olivia Wirth, had this to say about the technology:

“Whether the user wants a virtual tour of our new Los Angeles First Lounge or experience an A380 landing from the tarmac, this technology gives us a completely new way to connect with our customers. It’s also a fantastic tool to feature our network’s destinations, inspiring travel and promoting tourism.”

Virtual wine tasting

If wine and vineyards are more your thing, Moët & Chandon recently hosted a London event at which guests were invited to strap on a VR headset while sipping selected champagne. Meanwhile, the virtual reality programme led the guests on a tour through beautiful vineyards and a visual guide to the wine-making process. À votre santé!

Try virtual reality yourself

With a handful of virtual travel apps, you can try some of these immersive experiences for yourself. And you don’t need one of Marriott’s sensory tank “transporters” to do it. All you need is a piece of cardboard – well, “Google Cardboard” to be exact – and your smartphone. Here are some of the best virtual reality travel apps:

Ascape: Experience virtual reality videos in Jordan, South Africa, and a particularly creepy walk through Chernobyl.Ascape virtual reality

Accor Hotels for Cardboard: Take a tour through some of Accor’s most luxurious hotels on the planet.

YouVisit: Choose from 1,000 different destinations, and even book your next trip through the app.

Will virtual reality replace travel?

I don’t think any of us could imagine a world where virtual reality replaces the excitement of walking through a new city, smelling the aromas of an Asian food market or meeting new people.

What virtual reality will do, however, as it becomes more and more available, is inspire people to book their next trip. It’s perhaps the most powerful, untapped marketing tool in the travel industry.

Back at Thomas Cook, I try out another virtual trip. This time, I’m walking along the OCBC skyway in Singapore. The enchanting purple and green tree structures reach up around me, the iconic Marina Bay hotel sits in the distance, and I’m already planning when to book flights.

Come and get me in half an hour.

By Ben Brown

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