Several aspects of VR can be considered as advantageous when comparing them to marketing counterparts of the traditional methods. Firstly, we need to establish what is considered as a traditional marketing method in this article. The author considers as traditional marketing measures channels such as newspaper ads, printed brochures or TV and radio adverts. These have the disadvantage of only offering limited insights into a destination, they cannot convey a proper image of what the client can expect of a destination. If the material supplied by the DMO to travel agents is poorly made or lacking essential information, clients and even travel agents alike have problems making informed decisions (UNWTO, 2007). Sussmann & Vanhegan (2000) also state that traditional marketing means like brochures or short video clips can only convey a short and shallow glimpse of an offer. This should be avoided, because clients who travel to a destination with a lack of knowledge of the destination may be disappointed when their expectations are not met, thus resulting in a negative outcome in the customer life cycle mentioned previously (Cheong, 1995).
The UNWTO advises DMOs in their 2007 published ‘Practical Guide to Tourism Destination Management’ about the use of traditional marketing means. They mention that when using printed materials for promotional activities, DMOs always must plan with care about what needs printing and how much of it is needed. They always have to weigh between the risk of overprinting, which would lead to unnecessary expenses for storage, and underprinting, which would be very disadvantageous at trade fairs or other events. Another important factor to consider according to them is the quality, size and thickness of paper used. If a destination specializes in a long-haul source market for their promotion, the costs of freight and distribution definitely have to be considered carefully in order to not turn into great liabilities.
They do not advise not to use printed materials but urge DMOs to take into account the possibility to use electronic materials if possible and where relevant. Production costs are usually lower than for printed materials and the same goes for their distribution. Another advantage of electronic materials is the option to update them regularly. However, DMOs should ensure they are equipped with sufficient technology and expertise to fully utilize electronic channels in their full potential and guarantee that consumers can access electronic content without any restrictions (UNWTO, 2007).
Nevertheless, a lack of information for customers can be avoided by using VR applications. They allow clients to explore a destination on a much deeper level, in essence, they can experience a sample of the destination (Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000; Giordimaina, 2008). A different advantage of VEs over traditional methods is that the former offer the possibility to interact with the product. Traditional methods such as brochures are obviously a one-way medium that do not provide the opportunity to actively communicate with customers (Wan et al., 2007).
Moreover, within the VE, the DMO can display additional information about attractions and other points of interest (POIs) the customer is looking at. This will result in more realistic expectations in the clients mind, posing an advantage, because when the client visits the destination, his expectations can be fulfilled at a satisfactory level, improving his holiday experience (Cheong, 1995, Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000; Huang et al., 2015).
Wan et al. (2007) unveiled through their research that the correct selection of a marketing measure greatly influences the advertising effect. In relation to tourism destinations, they state that taking into account each destinations characteristics is of utmost importance. They discourage the random application of marketing measures involving new media. Instead, marketing managers should spend careful consideration on their available marketing budget, the media type, the destination characteristics, and their target groups. Then they will be able to execute a successful marketing campaign. By carefully employing these findings, marketers might also find that traditional marketing methods suffice for their specific aims.
There are numerous benefits and risks that have been pointed out by tourism researchers, these will be presented in this part in more detail. It is split up in between the cases of sampling and showcasing, virtual travel acceptance and accessibility. Each of these aspects is impacted a lot by the possibility of virtual travel.
Sampling and Showcasing
The great potential that VR has in the area of tourism promotion is mostly recognized as the ability to provide sensory experiences to the customers. What destinations are trying to sell are so called ‘confidence goods’, essentially implying that under normal circumstances it is not possible to sample the tourist product. Tourism is a service industry where services are produced as they are consumed (Chand, 2014). A customer’s decision can therefore only be based on all the descriptive texts and videos a destination traditionally provides with traditional methods. VR applications, however, enable tourism marketers to actually provide a sample of the product to potential customers, making them more informed about the destination. If clients are better informed about a destination, their expectations tend to be more realistic, ultimately leading to more satisfying holidays (Cheong, 1995; Hobson & Williams, 1995; Wan et al., 2007; Guttentag, 2010; Argyropoulou, Dionyssopoulou & Miaoulis, 2011; Huang et al., 2015).
One significant, but often overlooked, use of VR for DMOs is the possibility to communicate plans efficiently to its local community. It is a common occurrence that a local community might block tourism development because planners fail to demonstrate the project advantages to them in a suitable manner. If a project were to be presented in a VE, it would be much easier for members of the local community to envision the planners’ ideas. This is presumably not the case if they were to just look at some blueprints or 3D rendered models on a computer screen, as most lack the necessary insight to fully understand models presented that way. From the way of presenting projects in VR, planners could receive feedback about the project from the community, and possibly incorporate that feedback into the plans. This is considered to be very advantageous for DMOs, because as has been shown in previous research, participation of local communities in the planning process of a destination can represent an integral part in a destinations success (Haywood, 1988 and Simmons, 1994, as cited in Guttentag, 2010; Sigala & Marinidis, 2010).
Whereas this by itself has no apparent relation to tourism promotion, a clear relation becomes apparent upon further thought. If destination planners can advance with a certain project with local stakeholder support, they are able to promote this new project, possibly through VR, to perhaps some new target groups that were previously missing incentives to visit. There is a multitude of reasons why customers decide to travel, but regarding virtual travel as an alternative to real travel, their opinions appear mixed.
Virtual Travel Acceptance
As Sussmann and Vanhegan (2000) show, the majority of consumers appears to theoretically appreciate the opportunity to conduct virtual travel. This is demonstrated on the example of theme parks, which are essentially completely simulated environments. The advantages for consumers are numerous, for example, they „are easy, relatively inexpensive, involve no unpleasant surprises and guarantee fun for the whole family“ (p. 2). In addition to that, VR offers the unique advantage that the experiences can be shaped completely according to customer wishes in a manner that has so far not been possible. Controversially, their conducted studies showed somewhat different results when tourists were asked specifically about virtual travel.
There are numerous reasons why clients decide to travel, but just as many reasons why potential tourists are unable to actually go on vacation. Some of those reasons are listed by Guttentag:
Possible tourism constraints are quite varied, but common examples include a lack of money, a lack of time, poor health, safety fears, concerns about managing in a foreign environment, perceived lack of skills for an activity, and an absence of desired travel partners. (Guttentag, 2010, p.646)
In the face of those constraints it seems logical to mention how virtual travel is not influenced by many of the factors, so it might come as a surprise to learn the results Sussmann and Vanhegan (2000) found out while carrying out their quantitative (non-representative) study in Britain. Most respondents agreed that a virtual holiday can by no means fully replace the actual travel. Above mentioned constraints, perceived inconveniences and environmental dangers in ‘real’ destinations did not play a significant role for the respondents of their survey (Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000).
A year later, another survey was carried out at an Australian university, resulting in a similar outcome. Rather than supporting virtual travel, the students lamented the lack of spontaneity, absence of relaxation possibilities and the impossibility of souvenir purchase (Prideaux, 2002, as cited in Guttentag, 2010). That is despite advantages such as “VR substitutes could offer lower costs, no lines [queues], no transportation hassles, greater safety, no language issues, no bureaucracy or visas, no weather concerns, and an overall guaranteed experience” (Guttentag, 2010, p. 644). Considering those results, it can be derived that at the moment tourists still prefer to travel the traditional way, in spite of being aware of the many advantages VR has to offer. While the results are not up to date, they still apply as much today as back then. Taking into consideration that the main aspect that has changed since then is the technological development, the author believes that it does not impact the factors mentioned in the studies. However, there are future projections that envision VR as an essential element in travel, further highlighted in chapter 9.
However, not only the customers view on VR travel acceptance is important. Scholars point out that there is also a high risk for consumers to accept inaccuracies presented in a VE as fact, which could lead to damaging misconceptions about a destination (Guttentag, 2010). This is a scenario that resembles the issue many destinations are encountering with their printed brochures, where customers are often presented with photoshopped images that do not resemble the actual destination. There is also the question being discussed if VR travel can be considered as actual travel. This is because currently accepted definitions of tourism are commonly restricting touristic activities to physical movements, something that is not a given fact in VR travel (UNWTO, 2007; Guttentag, 2010).
Lastly, there is the concern of measurability. Guttentag (2010) questions how revenues generated through VR sales are going to be measured by asking if the generated revenue will go to stakeholders featured in the captured content or to the DMO promoting it. Up to this point, no clear solution to this dilemma seems to have been found. Cheong (1995), Sussmann, and Vanhegan (2000) state that many developing countries are expected to voice their concerns about VR travel, because they rely heavily on the touristic revenue generated on-site for their survival.
While there are undoubtedly many advantages and disadvantages related to the use of VR, in the end, it all boils down to how a service provider or DMO decides to implement VR into their marketing strategies. Because VR can either be used to attempt to replace the act of actually physically traveling or it can fulfill a complimentary role. From some scholars’ point of view, it seems to be the most reasonable solution to use a combination of an experience in the real world together with some VR aspects. If a tourist were to sample the real experience virtually before the actual real experience, this could have an immense impact on the desire to visit the destination. This complimentary use of VR would offer an improvement of the already existing real tourism product. As was predicted over a decade ago, customers will prefer to book their holidays independently and tailor the experiences more to their needs. VR can aid holidaymakers in doing just that (Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000).
In addition to those aspects listed, more potential benefits of VR travel have been identified in previous research. In his research, Guttentag (2010) argues that there is a unique type of accessibility offered through VR. Even though this access is only possible to a virtual world, there are many circumstances where that is much preferable to every other option apart from actually going out and experiencing it in the real world. However, this may not always be possible, be it due to the potential tourist being physically handicapped, or even just financially not in the right position (Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000; Guttentag, 2010).
There are also other reasons that could hinder a potential tourist from visiting a destination in real life. The tourist site “may be too remote, too expensive, too inhospitable, too dangerous, too fragile, or simply no longer exist.” (p.643). Others add that through VR it is possible to experience scenarios that have either happened in the past or are expected to happen in the future, offering a form of virtual time traveling experience (Sussmann & Vanhegan, 2000). Guttentag (2010) states several opinions of other researchers that support the fact that VR could be utilized to offer a different possibility of access to endangered heritage sites.
Most heritage sites are only endangered because they cannot cope with demand and are exceeding their so-called carrying capacity, resulting in rapid deterioration of the site that is being visited by too many tourists. VR would grant a form of non-destructive access to the public. Nevertheless, it is so far not known if the virtual experience will actually fulfill tourists desire to visit the heritage site, or if this will only motivate them further to go and visit the real site, potentially endangering the site to an even further degree of deterioration (Guttentag, 2010). As a response to that problem, Guttentag (2010) suggests to place infrastructure needed to experience a VE in the vicinity of the actual tourism site, so tourists can still experience an element of real travel.