Why Immersive Experiences Could Help the Travel Industry Rebound

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Like virtually all other sectors, the travel and experience industry is in recovery mode. The rate of recovery is very different in each country, however, and often varies greatly within each country by region as well.

Take beautiful Miami. Some restaurants are booked three months out, and business is starting to pick up, even though many mega-clubs are closed (famed LIV reopened April 16) and international travel is severely limited. Some restaurateurs I know are making more now than before Covid-19, partly because revelers are opting for restaurants and haven’t had the option of mega-clubs for the outings.

Europe will likely experience a similar recovery this summer. Ibiza and Mykonos will be open for business, albeit with different customers, as U.S. travelers may still be banned well into the summer.

The lockdowns and restrictions brought on by the pandemic have conditioned us to avoid going out, and for good reason. However, as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, many people may still be hesitant to travel and dine — even when it may be safe to do so. Despite the ban on U.S. travelers, I know many who have traveled to Europe in the past months, ostensibly for business purposes (as business travel is still allowed to some countries).

Those people still go out for business dinners and experiences, provided there is no mandatory quarantine requirement for them. But if you asked the average person, they might think any kind of travel to Europe was impossible in 2021. The same is true of restaurants, lounges and outdoor venues: Many people may be hesitant, but I’ve seen places begin to make a comeback because of pent-up demand and fewer choices for partygoers.

Learning Through Loss

If you’re hesitant to travel — abroad or just down the street to your favorite eatery — that’s understandable. But as it becomes safer to do so, I expect many will seize on the opportunity.

These are days, weeks, nights, and experiences we’ll never have an opportunity to get back. We all are experiencing grief from the past year, in one way or another, and we should accept it and process it properly. This lost time means lost memories we could have formed and shared with those we love (or with new connections as well). It’s time to make up for lost time.

When we travel and experience new things, we learn. Our education, especially our social education, has suffered greatly in the past year. Not only are we missing out on creating new friendships and relationships, but our existing relationships are not developing as well as they could. Bonds deepen when we share experiences (and binge-watching Netflix doesn’t count as an experience, sorry).

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Nothing Like the Real Thing

Cities and entertainment venues will need to get creative to lure folks back out for leisure and enjoyment, and that’s where immersive experiences powered by augmented and virtual reality could make a big difference.

Take beautiful Ibiza. The Mediterranean island has been a leader in immersive experiences for some time. The HEART immersive experience and show is always incredible, and one cannot mention augmented experiences in Ibiza without giving reference to Sublimotion, a truly avant-garde venue.

Immersive experiences are popping up everywhere. In East London, passengers can call up the Surrealist Taxi service, where riders are dealt a hand of experience cards that dictate where they travel; it’s a play on the choose-your-own-adventure experiences of yesteryear.

In New York City, a company called CVJTF Group has created a series of immersive experiences based on military field simulations, called Covert Venture. The experiences, which range from saving the president at an Air Force One crash site to performing undercover operations at the Kremlin, are guided by former members of Special Forces.

But significant challenges come with including more immersive and curated experiences via virtual or augmented reality. The jury is out on wearable devices, and despite science showing that our chances of viral infection from a surface are low, it may be hard to convince partygoers to even wear the tech. Other elements of crafting such experiences must be put in the context of the customer.

If you’re a business owner, you must consider the science but listen to what your customers are actually comfortable with — even if it’s more restrictive than the latest science or guidance says should be required.

Another disadvantage of augmented reality is that it doesn’t encourage as much human-to-human interaction, which affects our ability to develop relationships. I love augmented reality experiences, but if they were my only option for going out, I would soon find myself feeling quite empty. Like anything, they are a new form of human interaction and entertainment, but they will not replace experiences that let us converse with another human face to face.

Business owners need to find their unique balance when combining any immersive experience with facilitating human interaction in a physical space. People are intrigued by AR/VR experiences, but we still crave that old-school connection that digital can’t necessarily duplicate.

Ultimately, I believe augmented reality experiences will continue to expand. I predict that other hot spots will follow Ibiza’s lead, with restaurants adding augmented reality shows for guests and more. Immersive and augmented reality experiences that impact the guest and can generate an emotional response while requiring the least wearable tech will likely fare the best, through the pandemic and beyond, compared with those heavily relying on wearable devices, given their stigmas.

At least the wheels of imagination are starting to turn. The road to full recovery for travel and entertainment figures to be a long one, but at least it’ll be open again.