How AR can save the travel industry post-COVID

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It is no surprise that the pandemic has had drastic effects on travel across the globe, with thousands having holidays cancelled. While many still have the travel bug and would love to rebook, they remain anxious to leave the country.

Travel companies are suffering as a result. Research has shown that due to COVID-19, global revenue for the travel and tourism industry will decrease by 35% this year, estimated at 447.4 billion US dollars in 2020; this is significantly lower than the original prediction for 2020 at $712 billion.

During the difficult months ahead, as the world balances between a second outbreak and the easing of lockdowns, it will be crucial for the travel industry to regain interest and keep connecting with potential customers, to ensure they can stay afloat post-COVID. 

Augmented reality (AR) is the perfect solution for this and a natural fit for the industry; whether it’s by transporting consumers to a virtual holiday destination, or providing a better travel experience, AR is already having an impact through the use of consumer smartphones

Not only can businesses use this technology to advertise destinations and services, but also to drive interest and sales during these uncertain times

Below are some uses of AR in the industry, both for advertising and practical applications, on top of some speculative ideas of where we could go next: 

AR Portals

AR portals allow brands to create a window into another world (or destination), providing consumers with a completely immersive experience which they can enter and walk around, just by using the lens of their phone.

Lufthansa’s recent marketing campaign is a great example of AR being used in the travel industry. The company built a ‘portal’ experience, allowing consumers to virtually step out onto a balcony and take in the skylines of New York and Hong Kong

Lufthansa is not the only company who has looked to AR portals. TAP Airlines also recently used this type of experience to advertise Lisbon as one of its new destinations; consumers could step off of a virtual plane, take in the sights of Lisbon, and even take pictures of themselves there

This type of experience can allow potential customers to visualise and imagine themselves at famous landmarks, as well as teach them facts about the local area, for example. Being able to see and engage with holiday destinations, rather than just imagine them or see an image on the internet, is the next best thing for those looking to advertise their destinations, and can encourage bookings and sales.

AR for Ease of Travel

AR isn’t just limited to portals and marketing, though, and can be utilised to improve the actual travelling experience. 

American Airlines has integrated world effects to help customers navigate complicated airport layouts using AR wayfinding - a lifesaver if you are in a rush! It’s not hard to imagine the use of this technology in a post-COVID world, where there are likely one-way systems and social distancing measures in place to reduce the potential spread of the virus.

Augmented reality also provides the opportunity to bring entertainment to the user’s environment. Eurostar, for example, uses world effects to present travellers with an imaginary underwater adventure from their seats during the, usually rather boring, tunnel journey. By pointing their phones to the walls of the carriage, passengers can view and experience what may be lurking on the other side of the tunnel. It’s easy to imagine a similar experience transforming plane, ferry or train journeys. 

Whether comforting nervous flyers with more tranquil surroundings, occupying kids with magical experiences or highlighting interesting things and facts about the surrounding world, AR can add a new dimension to the simple but often long-winded act of transportation.

The Future of AR for Travel

AR has the potential to truly revolutionise all aspects of travelling as the next iteration of our interface with technology, and a truly immersive one.

We will eventually reach a stage where people wear some form of device to augment the world around them, whether that is a headset, glasses, or even brain-connected interfaces, as Elon Musk has recently demoed. Once mature, this will be the most seamless way to blend information and media into the real world. 

As far as AR in travel and tourism goes, this could possibly help to guide visitors from one place to another using AR navigation, or provide them with context about their surroundings and a whole extra dimension of experience.

In a world where we can overlay information in front of buildings, easily augment restaurant menus and even create live scenes of animated historical figures in museums, AR can become a key tool for tourism; visitors can explore cities with additional, augmented information right at their fingertips. 

Snapchat recently produced a great example and one novel use of AR in London. With Big Ben undergoing maintenance work, Snapchat created a geofenced lens, allowing users to peel away scaffolding and apply a snow globe, restoring Big Ben’s role as a centrepiece for Christmas card photos, and improving the experience of London sightseeing for tourists. 

The possibilities for AR in travel are endless; in the near future, for example, companies could utilise the technology to introduce customers to their accommodation and demonstrate how to use facilities, or it could be used to show where the various controls on a hire car are.

In the next 12-18 months, we’ll see more of these use cases emerging, especially as the travel industry aims to fight back after COVID-19, and as Web AR (delivered through a browser) starts to gain popularity.

During this difficult time, as the industry attempts to rebuild interest and trust in travelling, having a more immersive experience through AR will certainly tempt people to travel to these destinations they are able to view and interact with. Exploring the opportunities of augmented reality in travel ought to be a high priority as the medium evolves.

David Ripert is CEO at Poplar Studio.


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