New Thinking

Holiday Inn Is Showing How VR Can Boost the Hospitality Industry

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When Holiday Inn figured out how to build a sample room in a shipping container for trade shows, it was a win. Instead of building a sample room from scratch for each event, then tearing it down and donating the furniture, the hotel brand could now have the room picked up and delivered to the next show.

But this year, Holiday Inn made the room-in-a-box obsolete. Now, all they have to tote to shows and events is a couple of Samsung headsets, some computer hardware, and swivel chairs. For the first time this year, franchise owners at the brand’s annual conference toured different room formats virtually, swivelling this way and that in the chairs wearing headsets, exploring different layouts and toggling between the amber or coral color palettes.

The change isn’t just saving the IHG hotel brand a (literal) ton on shipping. “The biggest business advantage for us is that it’s a reusable asset,” explains Melissa McFarland, director of brand design programs for Holiday Inn, part of the IHG hotel group. “We use it upfront when we’re selling the franchise license to an owner. We use it for educating the owners’ designers when they go through our design immersion course. In the future, we’re looking at the consumer and the training of employees.” For instance, employees at hotels could use a virtual room as a guide for where to put the TV or the lamps when setting up a new room, or for trying out different room finishes and layouts on guest opinion panels.

All this makes the brand a poster child for the many opportunities VR holds for the hospitality industry. Of course, Holiday Inn isn’t the only hospitality brand to take note of these opportunities. Hotels are integrating VR into marketing, in-room entertainment, training, and other business uses. For example, Marriott hotels in London and and some IHG hotels in China have provided guests with headsets as an entertainment alternative to cable TV, at least on a trial basis. And Hilton, Best Western, and others (as well as Holiday Inn) are creating 360-degree photos, videos, and ads meant to give potential guests a more immersive experience, whether it’s through Google Cardboard or through a web browser or smartphone app.

However, when McFarland and Holiday Inn Brand Experience Manager Jacqueline Diaz shared how deeply VR is now integrated into the design process at Holiday Inn, listeners at the recent Virtual Reality Strategy conference in San Francisco were intrigued. The company began using VR in 2016, and now uses it from the early stages of laying out any new space for its hotels.

“Once we have a concept and a design and it’s approved, we work with (Atlanta animation and VR studio) TRICK 3D to build it out in VR to understand how the space operates and how much space we have between elements,” McFarland says.

Just one of many instances when this new virtual mockup stage has saved the company time and money happened when the design team had found a cute chair for the built-in desks in a new room design—but the mockup revealed a problem. “The chair didn’t fit under the table,” says McFarland told the room at the VRS conference. “It takes 16 weeks to get this chair from China. And it would be devastating to have 200 tables that have to be reordered. So that was a great catch for us, and a huge cost savings. It was only a half an inch, but half an inch matters!”

Now, Holiday Inn is using VR to help design a new “open lobby” concept, to which it will require all owners to hew. Because Holiday Inns are individually owned, creating a uniform design comes with the challenge of differing spaces and floorplans.

“A lot of our Holiday Inns aren’t prototypical designs. There are a lot of different urban and suburban locations. Once we have the items modeled out, we will look at different floor plans to see how our owners need to adjust the design based on their lobby space,” McFarland says.

Another advantage that the company hopes to exploit in the future is using still shots from the highly realistic 3D models built for the VR environment instead of photographs in marketing materials. At the conference, Chad Eikhoff, founder of Trick3D, mentioned that another client, Delta Air Lines, is able to use virtual environments for photo shoots to avoid having to take an airplane out of service for the day. For Holiday Inn, McFarland acknowledges that keeping rooms available for clients is an advantage, but she also imagines the technology being valuable to owners of new construction hotels.

“They won’t have the chance to do photography, but they want to sell it ahead of time,” McFarland says.

Embracing a new technology so deeply, so quickly, hasn’t always been easy, McFarland acknowledges.

“One of the challenges that all organizations face is that there are varying degrees of knowledge of what this technology can do,” she said in session at the VRS conference.

Diaz agreed, saying, “There’s hesitation. ‘I have to put a headset on? Is it going to make me sick?’”

But this is a challenge McFarland enjoys. “One of the greatest parts of my job is putting people through VR for the very first time. You simply can’t articulate the feeling until you’re in it.”

The challenges that hospitality companies face in adopting VR are largely the same as what all enterprises face, McFarland, Diaz, and Eikhoff agreed during the panel. One big challenge across different types of enterprises is figuring out what department to sell to, or whose budget it should come out of, when building one VR model may benefit the marketing department, the design department, training across departments, and others.

But hospitality enterprises are wise to face up to these challenges to move ahead with VR, because industry thinkers seem convinced that it’s the future. In fact, one industry editorial posits that 70 years from now, hotel guests will be able to customize the look of their hotel rooms by using VR to change out art as easily as today’s Holiday Inn franchisees toggle between color schemes in their virtual rooms.

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