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XR tech is great for the extended classroom, but it’s not the only way it can be used to teach. Jason Palmer explains how Winged Whale Media is using VR and 360 video to train tour guides on travel destinations they can’t travel to right now.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guest is Jason Palmer. As the director of new media at Winged Whale Media, it’s Jason’s responsibility to help transform [the] client’s vision into something that will make a difference. So with a background in digital communications from the University of Waterloo here in Canada, Jason spent the last 10 years in content creation with traditional media in videography and photography. Jason has spearheaded the use of 360 degree video VR content for a handful of clients, and now is on the forefront of producing 360 VR video content in the travel and tourism industry for major hotel brands, national tourism boards, and cruise lines. And now broadened its scope to include full virtual environments and is working on bringing tourism to people in unprecedented times of restricted travel. Thank you so much, Jason, for joining me this morning.

Jason: It’s an absolute pleasure.

Julie: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about Winged Whale Media? It sounds like it’s a great place to start.

Jason: [chuckles] Yeah, absolutely. So, Winged Whale Media — as you mentioned there — we’ve been around for a little bit more than 10 years now. And we started out in the traditional side, doing a lot of photography and video. In particular with the tourism industry, we would capture a lot of resorts and destinations. For example, a tour operator or a resort would send us down to a destination — usually in the Caribbean, I might add, which is always a benefit — and we would capture the rooms, we’d capture the pools, we’d capture the casinos, or the discos, or what have you, and bring that content back. We’ve been doing that for a while and it’s been a great ride. I don’t know if you want me to get into the name of the company now. [laughs]

Julie: Yeah, absolutely. Well, obviously, with travel and tourism, the big question is, how is your industry doing? Because nobody’s travelling, right? That’s the first thing that everybody’s probably thinking as they’re listening to this podcast. So how has your business changed, and what kind of services are you starting to do within the company to support travel and tourism?

Jason: We’ve really kind of examined over the last couple of months how we can bring education to the travel and tourism industry. And I’ll give you kind of a specific example in that. Typically, a destination such as Antigua and Barbuda, or the Bahamas, or really any country kind of on the planet will do what’s called a familiarization trip. And that’s where they will bring a number of industry professionals — whether they’re travel agents or press — to a destination and kind of showcase the destination to them. And for the smaller organizations, you’re maybe talking anywhere from 30 to 90 people for a familiarization trip over the course of the entire year. So if you’re taking 30 travel agents down to showcase your product over the course of the entire year, that’s not very many when you consider that there are 5,000+ travel agents in Canada, there are 20,000+ travel agents in the United States, let alone the number around the world. So you’re not getting a great deal of exposure for the effort that you’re putting in.

And so what we’ve been looking at doing is how we can broaden that scope and bring that to a much greater number. And with VR video, what we’ve seen is that it’s the next closest thing to being in a destination. We kind of call it a “one-and-a-half-hand experience.” It’s not first-hand experience, but it’s better than second-hand experience. And so what we do is we create these pieces with both consumer and travel agent education in mind. We will create pieces that are kind of shorter, more inspirational pieces for the consumer. We’re certainly not trying to replace travel with this technology. I don’t think anything of that nature will be able to be replaced, and we wouldn’t want to do that. But we create the small piece for the consumer, and then we create a much longer piece with additional information whereby we interview public officials, tour operators, hoteliers, a variety of travel suppliers, and we try to bring that education to the travel agent.

And we try to create it in such an immersive experience that they retain the information longer, that they’re more engaged with it, that they develop an affinity for the supplier, and really learn and be comfortable in promoting or selling that product. I know in a lot of situations, a lot of people are not able to experience the product that they’re selling in the travel industry, and that, of course, is problematic on a number of levels. And we’re really trying to help curb that, and give people the confidence and the opportunity to sell things that they’ve never been able to sell before and to increase their own professionalism.

Julie: It’s such an interesting opportunity for the travel industry to feature the best parts of their product, or their location, their beaches, the hotels, the hotel rooms, the volcanoes, the waterfalls, everything. And we’re all sitting at home right now, wishing we could go.

Jason: Mm-hm.

Julie: What do you think it’s going to take for the public or for everyone to kind of go and reach into VR, and start to experience these places just naturally to inspire where they want to go next?

Jason: I think we kind of call it cooped up in COVID.

Julie: [chuckles] Yeah.

Jason: People are just kind of stranded at home with probably a little bit of boredom and a little bit of repetition. And so what this really allows people to do is be inspired for when the borders open up, when the flights come back into the air, so that they can get a sense of where they want to go. We often think of it. It’s going to be a mad scramble for those travel dollars for travel suppliers when travel comes on board. And so they need to be preparing themselves to be in a position whereby they are speaking to the consumer so that when it comes online, the consumer is is basically trying to hand them their money right out the gate.

Julie: [chuckles] Yeah.

Jason: So we try to do it in 360 video. And that is easily digestible now. I mean, a lot of people have seen it on Facebook. A lot of people seen it on YouTube. I mean, the headset experience is there. It’s not quite where obviously we’d like to see it, but it’s improving year over year, which is great. And we’re just going to see an uptick. I mean, just about every major museum in the world and art gallery is developing 360 tours to inspire people. A lot of organizations — in our experience — have been hesitant over the years to do such a thing, because then they think, oh, well, then this person’s not going to go. They’ve already been to the museum. And that’s just kind of a flat out myth. What we’ve always seen in the numbers is an uptick in participation, in engagement, in interest. And then usually that is followed by a significant boost in actual travel spend. It’s been really great to kind of see this transformation. I don’t want to say it’s been great to see COVID, but it has certainly altered the way in which people perceive the XR community, and the product, and how travel’s being affected as well.

Julie: And so many things with travel that are going to change when we can fly again. And I was reading this morning an article about the new rules about flying. Nobody sits in the middle seats and you actually have to request to go to the washroom, so that you’re not in the aisle at the same time as somebody else. And those types of implementations are going to change the way that even the airlines staff are managing. So you’ve got to train them on their new procedures. So there’s training upon training, and education upon education about new ways of doing things. So being able to use 360 formats the way that you do to educate, whether it’s a company in their training, or a consumer about the product, or the next procedure of the way things that will happen.

Jason: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve traditionally done a lot of 360 video content, but we’re also moving into a kind of full virtual rendered atmosphere, using a platform like ENGAGE. And we could bring in a full interior of an airplane and walk people through what the new training procedures are. And now you don’t have a ton of staff on site, who are beside each other in a cramped space learning about their new procedures. You can do that all virtually in a safe space.

Julie: So just to unpack that a little bit, in what you just shared is that you’re using a platform like ENGAGE VR — a great team who are doing amazing things — that you can actually drop in an asset of an airplane into this platform, where you can actually work through building these digital interactions for the user to experience what it’s like to be on that plane. So it’s kind of an overlap into another platform, but it’s– what you’re building inside and that engagement that the company is doing right now.

Jason: Yeah. ENGAGE allows for a great deal of collaboration between us and clients and amongst themselves. We’re going to be looking at this for the cruise line industry, for the airline industry, for the hotel industry. One of the great things about the XR industry is that, basically, the possibilities are infinite. We’re actually going to be holding an event — June 11th, I believe — for the tourism industry, so that they can get a sense of what we can do in ENGAGE, and how that they can collaborate in space. So I can send you the poster and some information.

Julie: That would be incredible, I think. And it comes back to our situation that we’re in right now. I think people have that cringing feeling about travel and tourism right now, because nobody can go anywhere and the potential of getting this virus. So it’s kind of that touchy point of people just don’t even want to go. We as humans still need to experience. We need to see and feel. And this technology actually provides us with the opportunities to go so many places and see so many things and inspire — as you said — to be able to plan to go there, once we are able to travel again and experience the world.

Jason: Part of the human condition is just the desire to explore, and the desire to see and learn. I think that’s just kind of innate in humans. And in particular, the most recent trends in travel surround themselves with experiences. People want experiences.

Julie: And these experiences build on empathy and cultural agility.

Jason: Yeah.

Julie: And I think that that’s a huge education component.

Jason: It’s exactly it. And we’re able to bring that to the consumer, we’re able to bring that to the supplier and training them, and reaching out to the consumer and bringing that knowledge to them, and — I guess — kind of opening the door in that sense.

Julie: It’s a bit of a criss-cross of education and training, which the whole world is learning at the same time right now. So immersing people into 360 environments — like you’re doing — lends itself to the same exposure for everybody.

Jason: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Julie: That’s great. And what other kind of work are you doing with hotels? That’s another impact spot on being able to bring people back into the hotel industry, when there’s no forecast of jumping on a plane right now. [chuckles]

Jason: Yeah. My thoughts in a lot of this stuff, just like I’m sure a lot of people in the XR field, they’re continually evolving. And so, as I think about the platforms that we use — like ENGAGE — we’ll be able to take people on photorealistic tours of hotels, and just be able to basically walk throughout the entire resort, or walk the entire streets of London, or of ancient Egypt. When it comes to the hotel industry, what we’ve typically done, the experience that we’ve had in the past is we would go and capture a resort on 360 video from the perspective of someone visiting the resort. People who are behind the bar will pass you a drink, the room attendant will let you know about what’s going on at the resort this day, what the activities are available, those kinds of things.

And what we’ve seen is that works out really well when it comes to training both the consumer and the agent. And we’ve taken hotel properties. We’ve done work with Grupo Posadas, which is a resort and hotel chain down in Mexico. We’ve done training sessions with travel agents up here, and they love it. It’s more engaging. They remember– the retention rate for information on behalf of the agent is much higher. We’re looking at 80 percent in some cases, versus 20 percent information retention from PowerPoints and traditional videos.

Where we’re looking at how we can kind of merge those two and see what can be done, I would love to take people on tours of resorts in the sales process of the consumer, because the consumer is looking to experience a destination. “This is the resort that you can go at, or you can go to this resort, or you can go to this resort.” and take them on a small tour of that resort before they’re even there, and see what they think of them. I think it’s a real opportunity for the properties and the destinations to really refine and hone in on their unique selling propositions, and to be able to put their best foot forward to their clients.

Julie: It’ll be interesting to see with the translation of sales move towards closing a deal online as we advance and we start to implement those payment systems that you’re able to translate that sale right there on the spot. If there is a specific thing, “Oh, my goodness. I love this beach. We’re coming here.” and instantly– one day we’re going to be able to pay that, right there on the spot.

Jason: And we’ve seen that, where we’ve had people come to the booth that we’re representing for a particular destination. And they said, “This is the property that I want. This is where I want to go. Where can I book this?” Some of the experiences that we’ve had as we represent destinations at shows and we walk people through these experiences are incredible. It’s just wonderful to see.

We were representing the islands of Antigua and Barbuda at a trade show, and we had a gentleman come up to us in a wheelchair, and he wanted to know if he could try on the VR headset. And we said absolutely, and he did. And as he was in the experience, he became very emotional to the point where when he took the headset off, he had tears rolling down his face. And he said, “This is amazing. But unfortunately, I’m never going to get a chance to do this,” because of his infirmity. But the amazing thing was is that the director of tourism was right there and he said, “Well, you know what? My team and Barbuda is handicap friendly. Let’s talk about how we can help you out in this regard.”

And I mean, that kind of relationship is amazing to see, and to see it turn into this prosperity on both sides. We see those experiences all the time, and they’re amazing to see. And it will be a small matter of time before you’re in the headset, you click the resort you want, and you booked your room. I’m sure that capability is already there. I just don’t know if it’s being implemented and being accepted by the industry yet.

Julie: That’s an amazing story. I think both captivating somebody’s heart to be able to miss or love something not much. And then also for the ability of that director of tourism to step in and offer a solution that he thought maybe was not possible for him.

Jason: And we’ve got all kinds of stories. I mean, we had a travel agent who said, “I use VR with my clients all the time. And I’ve had people put their credit card down and say, I want the room that I just saw.” From our perspective, that’s what we want to hear, because that validates the work that we do. But it just kind of shows the power that this medium has.

Julie: Absolutely. So, now from a hotel or a tourism location perspective, what do you think are the top key considerations for them to begin using 360 formats in their sales processes? What do you think that they should do first?

Jason: I think first and foremost, I think they need to take some time to kind of study out what the medium is. We’ve had a lot of pushback over the years on certain things. They thought it was a fad, or they thought it was not something worthwhile. They didn’t see the difference between it. I have some crazy stories on that. I had someone hire me for– they paid me $10,000 to do a tour of their facility, and then they didn’t know how it worked at the end. They said, “Why does this look so funny?” And I said, “Well, you need to move your foot around when you look at it.” And they were like, “Ohhh, look at that!” And I’m like, “You just commissioned me to do this!”

There’s a fundamental level of education that I think any travel supplier needs to engage in. They need to understand the product. You need to understand how it benefits their bottom line. They need to understand how it’s going to bring a better experience to their customer. And when they’re able to do that, they’ll have a greater appreciation for it and then they’ll be invested in it. Because the last thing I want is for someone to hire me to do it, and then not really care that I’ve done it. It’s about bringing something unique to the user. And that’s what is going to set travel suppliers apart, especially in this future. They need to be able to tell people what it is that makes them different and why people should travel there. And this is — in my mind — one of the best mediums to do it, because you are getting there as close to that destination as possible without actually being there. It is a fantastic tool for inspiration.

Julie: Well, I think that’s a great way to end off this particular podcast session. Thank you so much, Jason, for joining me today.

Jason: My pleasure. My pleasure.

Julie: Thanks, everybody, for listening. My name is Julie Smithson, and this is the XR for Learning podcast. Thanks, everyone.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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