Abstract

Despite the growing body of literature supporting Virtual Reality’s (VR) effectiveness as a destination marketing tool, empirical research employing a tourism marketing perspective in this specific context remains scarce. Therefore, this exploratory study aims to bridge this gap by exploring the internal and external factors affecting VR adoption from the perspective of tourism marketers. A multi-case study strategy using interviews with seven tourism marketers from Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) in three UK-based urban tourism destinations was employed. Interview data were analyzed using thematic analysis. This study argues that certain perceived internal (positive tourist behavioral intentions and positive tourist perceptions) and external (competitive pressures and attract global markets) factors are positively associated with tourism marketers’ VR adoption. Theoretical contributions and practical implications are provided.

Key Words: Virtual Reality; Destination Marketing; Tourism Marketers; Urban Tourism Destinations.

Introduction The growing interconnectivity through advances in transportation and technology has in part led to increasing competition among urban destinations around the globe (Ichikawa, Yamato, & Dustan, 2017). City destinations must establish a competitive advantage by finding new concepts and marketing strategies to differentiate themselves and sustain long-term tourism growth (Xu & Zhang, 2016; Walls & Wang, 2011). Tourism marketers could utilize Virtual Reality (VR) as an innovative marketing tool to promote their services to prospective tourists and provide them with new ways of browsing where they can ‘feel and experience’ the destination as opposed to browsing through traditional media such as print or electronic catalogs (Disztinger, Schlogl, & Groth, 2017; Huang, Backman, Backman, & Chang, 2016). Previously it was argued that the immersive nature of VR is effective in attracting strong interest from tourists, influencing attitudes, and motivating behavioral intentions, which confirms VR’s effectiveness for marketing (Jung, tom Dieck, tom Dieck, & Moorhouse, 2017; Tussyadiah, Wang, & Jia, 2016; Pantano & Servidio, 2011). However, tourism marketers are faced with strategic decisions about investment in different VR platforms and modalities (Tussyadiah, Wang, & Jia, 2017). To date, research in this area has largely focused on tourists’ experiences (e.g. Jung, tom Dieck, & Moorhouse, 2017; Tussyadiah, Wang, Jung, & tom Dieck, 2018; Disztinger et al. 2017) and activities during the touristic trip. However, there is limited research on the opportunities of VR for destination marketing (Griffin, Giberson, Lee, Guttentag, & Kandaurova, 2017), and empirical research including exploratory qualitative research from the perspective of tourism marketers in this specific context is scarce. Indeed, previous research has suggested that VR could be beneficial to tourism marketers, and suggestions for future research include an exploration of the implications and opportunities of VR for tourism marketers (Griffin et al. 2017). Therefore, this study aims to contribute initial exploratory research by providing valuable insights into the internal and external pressures associated with VR for destination marketing from the perspective of tourism marketers, with specific knowledge and expertise in marketing urban tourism destinations.

Method

A multi-case study strategy using qualitative data collection with seven destination marketers in three UK-based urban tourism destinations was employed. Interview participants included one Commercial Director (P1), four Marketing Managers (P2, P4, P6, P7), one Digital Executive (P3), and one Head of Visitor Economy (P5) of four DMOs. DMOs were chosen as samples because they are responsible for the management and marketing of destinations and play a key role in winning increasingly demanding and experienced consumers through the intensive use of innovative technologies (Martins, Costa, & Pacheco, 2013). The interviews were conducted in the summer of 2017, and each interview lasted between 30 to 40 minutes. Several areas were broadly explored including the perceived benefits and barriers, perceived organizational capability, and perceived external pressures associated with VR implementation for marketing purposes. Thematic analysis was employed to systematically identify meaningful relationships and commonalities within the data set (Mills, Durepos, & Wiebe, 2010; Braun & Clarke, 2012). Overall, nine themes were identified. This study argues that certain perceived internal factors including positive tourist behavioral intentions, positive tourist perceptions, and external factors including competitive pressures and attracting global markets are positively associated with tourism marketers’ VR adoption. Furthermore, the internal factors that are negatively associated with tourism marketers’ VR adoption include organization readiness, limited funding, commercial return, and the external factors include tourist readiness and industry readiness.

Findings and Discussion

The findings indicated that tourism marketers’ perspectives of VRs potential as an effective marketing tool lies in its ability to influence positive tourist behavioral intentions, positive tourist perceptions, and attract global markets to urban tourism destinations. To support this, P6 stated, “VR is perfect for enticing people here, for destination marketing and pre-arrival. I think VR could really motivate them to visit” (positive behavioral intentions), “people are surprised what [the city] looks like now, so I think to change those misconceptions through VR would be useful” (P4) (positive perceptions) and “VR has the potential to attract international visitors and make them aware of the city product” (P3) (attract global markets). However, the specificity of the tourist target market must be clearly identified prior to investment, and “it could be that VR is directed at millennials, but with the cost implications for development and the service, would the end price be out of reach for that market? We have to take this into consideration” (P2). Moreover, the findings suggested that tourism marketers are challenged with a lack of knowledge on how to integrate and deploy such innovative technologies to effectively influence consumers’ travel decisions and therefore need to be more informed on VR technologies as suggested in previous research (e.g. Tussyadiah et al. 2017; Griffin et al. 2017). This largely relates to the organization's readiness and internal capability in terms of funding, employees’ skills and ability, and general knowledge on VR development and implementation, and therefore requires further time and monetary investment. In support of this, P3 stated, “I see the potential for VR but the hurdles that we have come across is how we use it. We are unsure of how to implement it and we need to do further research”. Moreover, the main concern for tourism marketers is to see a commercial return on investment in VR technologies given the barrier of limited funding, as P1 stated, “The costs are quite high, we have really got to evaluate the commercial return.”

Furthermore, the findings provided an alternative perspective on previous research concerning tourists’ behavioral intentions (e.g. Jung et al. 2017; Tussyadiah et al. 2017). However, the findings indicated that despite the extensive findings in this area, several tourism marketers suggested that tourists’ expectations of city destinations to integrate VR technologies are yet to arrive, although the near future could challenge such perceptions (tourist readiness). For example, P5 stated, “I don’t think VR is a deal-breaker at this point, I don’t think visitor expectations are there yet…but it will be in the future”. Likewise, “another challenge is the general awareness of VR… it needs to be made as easy as possible for people to use and understand” (P6). Nevertheless, the external environment presses the need for tourism marketers to advance their understanding of how to strategically invest and implement innovative technologies such as VR into the marketing plan to achieve differentiation and competitive advantage. Competitive pressures in the external environment could be a motivating factor to implementation as P2 stated, “I think implementing VR would give [the city] a competitive edge”, and “implementing VR into the destination offerings has the power to differentiate” (P6). However, because VR is in the early stages of adoption from both tourists and industry, a highlighted concern is that “we are relying on the visitor to have the quality equipment, maybe in a few years every household will have a VR headset so then it would be easier to reach them through VR and attract them to the destination” (P3). Nevertheless, although VR faces several barriers at the moment, “it will be useful in the future, whether that is in two years or four years, the time will definitely come” (P3).

Conclusion and Implications

This exploratory study broadly explored tourism marketers’ perspectives on the internal and external factors affecting their VR adoption. It is important to explore the topic from tourism professionals’ perspectives to gain a deeper insight into present perceptions and intentions on VR implementation so that barriers can be overcome to encourage adoption. To date, the extant research on VR for destination marketing has paid insufficient attention to tourism marketers’ perspectives on VR. To begin to bridge this knowledge gap, this study investigates VR for destination marketing in this specific context. This study theoretically contributes to the tourism literature by identifying several internal and external factors influencing tourism marketers’ adoption of innovative technologies such as VR for marketing. Further, this study provides important practical implications for tourism professionals by highlighting the potential benefits of VR implementation for them, for researchers by contributing initial exploratory research into this topic, and for developers by indicating that VR usability should be a relatively simple process to facilitate organizational adoption. Furthermore, several limitations pertain to generalisability and sample size. Only three urban tourism destinations in the UK were used as a multi-case study, which limits the generalisability of the findings, and only seven participants were included in this study, therefore, limiting the scope of the analysis. Future studies are recommended to reveal additional emergent themes and strengthen the findings of the present study.