Hotels.com's Vic Walia on Making Augmented Reality Campaigns Both Entertaining and Strategic
For Hotels.com, augmented reality (the process by which computer-generated imagery is combined with a user's real world background to provide a more rich, interactive experience) itself is not a campaign. Rather, it's another marketing tool—albeit, a cool one—the travel company can use to better connect with prospects and customers.
Hotels.com, an operating company of Expedia and which provides lodging at more than 85,000 properties worldwide, rolled out a multichannel campaign last week that centers around an augmented reality (AR) microsite, VirtualVacay.com. Dubbed Virtual Vacation, the campaign takes site visitors on virtual tours through 10 popular U.S. travel destinations: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco, New Orleans, Denver, San Diego and Seattle. By printing out a form with the "marker" from the microsite, using one of the print ads featuring the marker that are running in national newspapers and magazines, or visiting a special URL on their smart phones where this image also is displayed, consumers can hold the glyph up to their webcams and use their microphones to navigate 3-D versions of these major cities.
The AR experience offers local weather, events schedules and special deals for these top destinations, provided by media partners Weather.com and Metromix.com. In addition, users can interact with the virtual cities by modifying local landmarks, customizing street signs, landing a plane at the city's airport and taking pictures of themselves that are incorporated into travel pic-style digital postcards to be shared with friends and family via the users' social networking accounts.
According to Vic Walia, Hotels.com's senior director brand marketing, Virtual Vacation is an "integrated, 360-degree marketing approach," combining print, mobile, social media, e-mail and website media with AR and video to support a robust travel-inspired experience.
"Consumers are looking for as much information as they need in order to make that [hotel] booking, whether it's information around things to do in the destination or places to stay. Whatever information we provide them, we're just thinking up new ways to do that," says Walia.
Here, Walia discusses the campaign, its objectives and how it represents the future of marketing.
Target Marketing: What about AR appealed to you for this campaign?
Vic Walia: I've been seeing AR really take off the past couple of years. I think it is some cool technology, but unfortunately the majority of things I've been seeing are, let's call them "gimmicky" in nature. ... What we wanted to do was take it to another level: Add some functionality, add some utility to it, but also only use it if it made sense for our brand, and I think it does. Our customers are experiencing our brand online as it is today—they're using our brand to book hotels, to get information on hotels, to find out where to stay and where to go when they travel to a new destination. And the AR tool that we're using to create Virtual Vacation is just an extension of how people shop for hotels today. It's a fun way to experience different cities, to find out about local information in the cities ... virtually experience a city, and then you can book a hotel, right there through Virtual Vacation.
Like I've said, we've added some functionality and utility to AR to create something more germane to what we do, which is sell hotel rooms. So, we're trying to find a way to monetize this as well.
We didn't want to do AR just for the sake of doing AR ... To be honest, this is a glimpse into the future, in my mind. Ten years down the road, picking a number out of the air, people are going to be using virtual tours to experience hotel rooms and to buy things online.
TM: So is this more than a traditional campaign, in that this will be an ongoing feature for the consumer?
VW: We had a launch date, but we never had an end date—and that's by design. We want consumers to experience the site. We have a tool there that allows them to vote for their favorite city and to vote for the next city that we would build in AR. If there's consumer interest, we would continue to build this out; it would have legs of its own.
I guess it depends on your definition of "campaign." I actually like the word campaign, because what this isn't is a one-off idea. It's not just something that lives out there on its own and kind of fizzles away. It's part of a larger campaign, which is selling the idea of Hotels.com as a smarter way to book. We've taken an award-winning TV idea—with this character whose name is SMART who proves why Hotels.com is the smart way to book—and we've brought it into the digital world. But in the digital world, you have a longer time to experience the character SMART, to understand all the reasons why Hotels.com is a smarter way to book because through his script, through his dialogue, through his tour guide role, he explains ... all the features and benefits that we have.
TM: How long did it take to pull this effort together?
VW: Well, we had this idea back in the fall of '09, and through working with our ad agency Y&R Chicago and a third party who helped build this out, it's taken five, six months to pull this together. [And that] includes building the site as well as developing the PR plan and the print plan, which are the two marketing levers we're using to get consumers to the site. So we have a print campaign that went national [on May 5] in Wired and MacWorld, so we have some techie trade as well as the consumer travel trade, like USA Today and American Way magazine.
TM: How are you measuring audience response?
VW: We're looking at some of the basic things, like clickthroughs to the site, time spent on site and pass-along. But within those three things, one of the most important for me is the second, which is time spent on site. If you think about it, with a 30-second ad, you don't do any of those things: You don't pass along to a friend, you spend very little time with the brand. Whereas when you come to VirtualVacay.com, you're spending 10, 20 minutes on the site, exploring different cities, voting, and creating postcards and sending those to your friends. To me, that's a deep engagement with the brand—ad space I couldn't afford if I wanted to buy that type of ad time on broadcast TV.
TM: Are you also looking at how many vacations get booked via this microsite?
VW: It's something that we're measuring, however it's not going to take away from the core site. People come experience this fun tool, and if you're planning a trip to New York City, you can book it right there on the site or go to Hotels.com and find out some more information before you book. The good news is the sites are linked, so when you click "book a hotel," you're dropped onto the New York City search results on Hotels.com, which is robust information and actual, real-time pricing on what's happening in the city.
So, yes, it's something we'll be measuring. I don't expect millions of bookings by this tool, but it's definitely a useful utility should someone choose to make a booking at that time.