Virtual travel companions: The future of tourism destination marketing
A team of academics at James Cook University explore how the use of virtual travel companions in an augmented reality mobile app can help promote tourism attractions.
Innovative advancements have assisted the travel and tourism industry in evolving to new heights — leveraging highly-advanced technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and gamification tools, to create systems and experiences that are engaging and enjoyable for travellers.
Virtual pets, in particular, have the potential to trigger socio-emotional relationships with people, and encourage people to obtain travel experiences at specific destinations. Past research has shown that emotional attachment is an important factor in influencing a person’s travel behaviours and decisions to travel. While interacting with a virtual pet in a game, a player can become emotionally attached to the pet and can consider it a travel companion. Engaging with the virtual pet can therefore encourage the player to travel with it to a tourist destination.
In addition, games that contain challenges and competitions can motivate players to achieve specific goals and work towards attaining rewards that offer a range of benefits. A well-designed game that includes these rewards can influence tourist behaviour. For example, the virtual companion-based game Pokémon Go has maintained a large player base and huge excitement around the game since its launch — which can be attributed to its competitiveness and fun exploration features, motivating people to travel to different destinations to increase their in-game level and obtain more varied virtual pets.
An eclectic team of academics at James Cook University — comprised of Dr K. Thirumaran, Dr Shailey Chawla, Associate Professor Roberto Dillon, and Dr Jagdeep Kaur Sabharwal — set out to explore the introduction of virtual pets as a travel companion, through a mobile application, to create excitement as a form of marketing to lure visitors to a destination or an attraction.
In order to study and establish the relationships explored in this new model, the team surveyed over 500 participants on how they may interact with virtual pets — such as their engagement with the game, rewarding experience, and emotional attachment with the virtual pet.
While the results showed that engagement and experience with the game did not predict Intention to Travel with a virtual pet, it also showed that rewarding experience could increase emotional attachment with the virtual pet and thus increase the intention to travel with a virtual pet. What’s more, there was a largely positive reception or favourable opinion of on thoughts about virtual pets as a travel companion, including beliefs such as “They can add to the journey experience in both practical and emotional ways.”
Taking these findings into account, the proposed Intention to Travel (I2T) Model visualises the relationship between the factors contributing to the participants’ Intention to Travel with a virtual pet, suggesting that the conceptual game design should aim at creating a rewarding experience for the player to encourage the establishment of an emotional relationship between the player and virtual pet before enticing the player to travel to a specific destination. The results from the study also revealed that rewards can be a trigger to establish emotional attachment and motivate the player to travel with their virtual pet.
Intention to Travel (I2T) Model
The proposed game, as a free mobile download, should start by introducing the player to their unique virtual pet, which can be modelled after a specific attraction, a known character or something completely original. In order to build an emotional connection with the virtual pet, it is important to engage the player via typical behavioural instincts like “protection and care” for the pet, similar to the game Nintendogs where players simulate taking care of virtual pets. By walking around to collect items, players in the proposed game can increase characteristics of the pet like speed and stamina. The walking activity can be repeated regularly with simple clicking activities to keep players engaged.
Once the pet’s stats reach a specific level, the pet will be allowed to take part in a race with randomly-generated pets of similar activities to engage the player’s competitive instincts. As interactions progress and the pet’s stats increase in level, along with the player’s interest and commitment to the game, the “tourism” phase is introduced. In this phase, the pet will highlight a specific venue they have to explore for new items and progress further, unlocking new racing venues and increasing its stats to the next level. At the venue, the pet will encourage the player to walk around, describing the locale’s unique features while also discovering useful items to boost its stats. Back home, a new themed competitive venue for racing against stronger opponents will be unlocked. The game can also engage the player by turning them into a trainer for competitive racing action, tasking them with taking care of their pet and then look for unique items by visiting specific tourist attractions to unlock new challenges.
Overall, this research proposes an AR game design concept, with persuasive features involving interactions with virtual pets, to bring players to desired locations. This demonstrates the significant shift that destination marketing has seen — from print newspapers and magazines to digital media. The study highlights the role that virtual travel companions can play in influencing a wide range of prospective visitors to visit a travel destination, and effectively deliver relevant information about these destinations. This offers incredible value to destination marketing companies and tourism boards.
“This research is ground-breaking because it combines the work and expertise of academics across many different faculties — Business, IT & Science and Health & Social Sciences,” Dr Thirumaran says. “There is huge potential in the development of the virtual travel companion application. The team sees a future outcome where we can contribute this app to society to positively influence their travel experience, interactions — both at site visits and human social connections — and multiple other exciting sensory functions.”
K. Thirumaran, Shailey Chawla, Roberto Dillon, Jagdeep Kaur Sabharwal, Virtual pets want to travel: Engaging visitors, creating excitement, Tourism Management Perspectives, Volume 39, 2021, 100859, ISSN 2211-9736, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tmp.2021.100859.
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