Until recently, the idea of being able to experience a holiday before booking it would have been beyond comprehension for most people, but that concept has become a reality – virtually.
As Thomas Cook opened its sixth and latest concept store in the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, Travel Weekly was invited to experience the latest in in-store technology that promises just that.
The store has installed an Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset originally developed for gamers, to provide an all‑encompassing 3D holiday experience.
Cook is using the headset to offer customers an experience of its aircraft, hotels and destinations that is as rich and immersive as the most sophisticated computer games.
To date, Cook has had the visuals for its Sentido property at Punta del Mar in Majorca and its airline interiors uploaded on to the device.
Visitors to the store can experience the inside of a Cook aircraft to visualise how much legroom, cabin and baggage space will be available should they book with the operator.
Wearing the headset is a reminder of how far technology has come as you reach out to touch things that appear to be in front of you but are, in fact, simply 3D images in high-resolution detail.
The store also features an ‘advice bar app’, exclusively developed for Cook by Microsoft partner Infusion.
The app is available to use on the four screens set up at the ‘advice bar’ and allows visitors to research all aspects of their holiday, choosing a starting point such as price, departure time or gateway.
Lucy Green, head of retail strategic development for the UK, said Cook is working with Oculus Rift to have several more hotels filmed in 3D to be viewed with the virtual reality headsets.
“The new features in the store mean that customers don’t have to take our word for it when they are looking at holidays to book,” said Green.
“Now they can do their own research in store, such as looking up TripAdvisor for reviews and checking out the destination before they book.
“And, of course, the Oculus Rift technology is a great novelty, allowing customers to be fully immersed in the holiday experience.
“The upgraded digital offer is proving a winner as footfall in the store has seen a significant increase since the new concept was introduced.”
Jamie Queen, Cook head of ecommerce, goes through a bespoke training programme with staff before concept stores are opened. That training will eventually be rolled out across all stores to keep agents up to date with advances in the digital world.
The entrance to the Bluewater store is completely open and a ‘floating’ agent with an iPad greets customers at the front of the store.
Advice is offered on how the concept store works and customers can either receive assistance to make a booking or do their own research.
“The feedback we had was that it would be better to have a more digital presence at the front of the store,” said Green. “And further in, towards the rear of the store, we have the booths where customers can speak to agents.”
Cook has also partnered with Disney to create a children’s area, which includes tablets for youngsters to watch their favourite shows and play games.
Store manager Suzanne Jenkins said the new store took some adapting to, as she came from a traditional store, but it has proved a success.
“There is a definite appetite for virtual reality and people are upgrading their seats on flights because of the feature,” she said.
“I’m adapting to the new concept and the training we went through definitely helped.
“People are still coming in asking for brochures but they’re very receptive when we explain the new approach to them.”
Cook will review its six concept stores at the end of September before deciding where to open its next new-style outlets.