A new digital frontier? The promise of augmented reality in hotels

In enhancing the physical environment of a space, while providing guests with a realistic vision of location and room design, many hotels operators are now looking into the benefits of augmented reality. Ross Davies examines the technology and its potential to redefine the industry.

Three years since its launch, Pokémon Go remains the most widely known, mainstream application of augmented reality (AR).

For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go is a smartphone game, in which players catch virtual monsters in real-world setting, using GPS technology. By the close of 2016, the app had been downloaded over 500 million times worldwide, making it one of the most popular games ever launched.

Aside from making its creator Niantic very rich, Pokémon Go changed the way we looked at AR. Once seen as the lesser-known sister technology of virtual reality (VR) – the two differ in that AR overlays virtual objects on a real world environment while VR places users in artificial digital environment – the trend prompted several industries to assess its benefits with fresh eyes.

The hotel industry is one such sector. In fact, a number of big-name chains, from Radisson and Marriott to Peninsula, feature “Pokéstops”. Marriott even went one step further in 2016, partnering with travel-booking site Expedia to sponsor a Pokemon master in his bid to catch creatures dotted around the world.

Natural bedfellows: The blossoming digital relationship between hotels and AR

On the face of it, the hospitality industry and AR make for natural bedfellows for several reasons. Given that hotel groups are in the business of selling a physical environment to customers – both the hotel and its rooms – augmented reality represents an important marketing tool.

How? Well, AR can make said physical environment much more interactive, using either a smartphone, tablet device or headset. A number of hotel groups, such as Premier Inn, have already introduced such technology into their properties, whereby guests are able to point their smart phone at a map in their room and receive information on local points of interest.

“AR can make the physical environment much more interactive.”

The world’s first AR hotel is believed to be the Holiday Inn London Kensington Forum, whose foray into deploying such technology even predates the Pokémon Go craze. Coinciding with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the operator launched a campaign in which guests – with the aid of a smartphone or tablet – were able to see an array of the competing athletes in action across various parts of the hotel, from ping pong players at reception to rowers gliding down the corridors.

More recently, other groups have sought to use augmented reality for the purposes of more colourful and inventive marketing campaigns, including Best Western, which partnered with the Disney Channel to virtually depict well-known Disney stars in various guises across its property.

Personalised: What today’s guests want from their stay – and how AR can help deliver it

One might be forgiven for dismissing the above as mere novelty peddling, but that would be to dismiss what today’s hotel guests want from their stay: immersive personalisation.

As Scott Brothers, Group COO of ONVU Technologies, explains: “Personalisation in the hospitality industry is not a new notion. However, it can be drastically improved by technology, as there is a huge untapped resource.”

“AR taps into guests’ increasing proclivity towards immersive entertainment.”

Most hotel operators have smart phone-wielding millennials in their sights when it comes to digital strategy. In its ability to make reams of information readily available to such guests – even before they have checked in – AR makes for an especially attractive option.

As evidenced by Pokémon Go, AR also taps into guests’ increasing proclivity towards immersive entertainment. For instance, guests staying at Residence Inn by Marriott’s properties are able to access a “Blippar” app, which enables them access to an assortment of games – as well as customisable selfies – simply by pointing their phone at drinks coasters.

Growth market: Why AR’s projected growth spurt is good news for hotels

Elsewhere, AR virtual room keys also seem set to take off. Using beacon technology – augmented reality tech that deploys low-energy Bluetooth connections to communicate with smartphones and tablets – Starwood Hotels has run pilot programs to send virtual keys to guests, allowing them to open their door via their phone. Guests staying at Disney Resorts in Orlando, Florida can also do the same via the group’s My Disney Experience app.

“The global augmented and virtual reality market is set to hit $814.7bn by 2025.”

According to a recent report by market research group Zion Market Research, the global augmented and virtual reality market is set to hit $814.7bn by 2025; last year the market was valued at $26.7bn.

That’s a considerable market growth spurt, and one which the hospitality industry would be wise to exploit. As the Pokémon Go trend taught us, consumers are more than willing to be taken to new places with the helping hand of an app and a smartphone. That means hotels are ripe for the take-off of augmented reality.

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Cover image credit: Hilton Hotels and Resorts