Embracing virtual reality has had positive results for Thomas Cook’s Discovery stores. Abra Dunsby speaks to Peter Ryan, Westfield Stratford’s branch manager, about its power to inspire customers and encourage bookings.
Weaving through the high rises of New York, teetering atop Table Mountain, exploring the polished interior of a cruise ship – these experiences can now be sampled from the comfort of a travel agency.
Thomas Cook’s Westfield Stratford store is one such agency. As a Discovery store, it’s been kitted out with smart technology including a virtual reality (VR) headset.
“People part with a lot of money before actually going on holiday, so VR allows customers to try before they buy,” explains branch manager Peter Ryan. “It’s more tangible than a brochure. We used it for the store’s launch weekend last year and it intrigued people from the start.”
The store has been using VR ever since and Ryan says the concept, along with the store’s positioning inside the busy Westfield shopping centre, has led to a boost in business.
“It’s helping us to close sales,” he asserts. “The shop has outperformed compared with the previous year and we’re up in terms of sales. VR has helped improve sales and our customer experience."
The Westfield store’s layout, with complete glass frontage, means customers can easily see what’s going on inside, helping to maintain healthy footfall levels.
“It’s a hub of activity in-store, and people are definitely drawn in when they see a customer using the VR headset,” says Ryan.
The knock-on effect continues inside the agency. “If we’re interacting with a customer with VR, another customer might become curious and ask to have a go,” he says.
The Samsung headset features 28 videos, ranging from destinations, to cruise ships, hotels and aircraft. Similar headsets retail at around £80, making it a cost effective tool that an independent agent could reap ROI benefits from.
The Thomas Cook airline videos are particularly popular, and have been used as a handy upselling tool by Ryan’s team.
“We recently had a group of eight women come in wanting to go to Cancun. They upgraded to premium economy for their return flight after watching the VR,” says Ryan.
As one of the first travel agencies to launch VR, Ryan says it has helped differentiate from high street competitors. From the customer’s perspective, it offers a first glimpse of what to expect from their holiday, and generates excitement.
“It helps customers make an informed decision before they book, plus it shows them what to do once they get there,” says Ryan. “My team has more than 200 years’ combined experience and sell really well, but this just adds to the customer experience.”
Ryan cites one recent success story of a couple who came to the agency to plan a Mexico honeymoon.
“They had a choice of three hotels, one of which was on Rivera Maya beach,” says Ryan. “They asked what Riviera Maya beach was like, so I showed them. They watched 360-degree drone footage of the beach, which they were really impressed by. It definitely helped sell the holiday.”
Ryan’s team has also used VR to showcase Cook’s branded hotels.
“Our video of Sentido Letoonia Golf Resort & Spa shows two of the room types. We held a Sentido event recently and a representative came in and talked about the hotel’s features, while customers saw it all on the VR headset.”
It’s not the first time the headset has been used for in-store events, with a recent cruise weekend also delivering good results, especially for customers who had never been on a ship before. Add-ons have also had a boost thanks to VR: “We’re massively up in terms of sales for attractions, tickets and added extras,” says Ryan.
“We’ve a great New York VR city tour that’s been popular, and a Table Mountain video that’s done well.”
In our technology-driven world, Thomas Cook proves that VR can be used as a nifty sales tool to enrich the client’s holiday booking experience.