Visit Houston Uses VR to Help Bust the City’s ‘Tumbleweeds and Cattle’ Stereotypes

360-degree videos include the NASA Space Center and more

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Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., and one of the most diverse, yet it's still not a hugely popular tourist destination. "We still have to dispel beliefs that Houston is where the tumbleweeds and cattle are," said Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, the city's convention and visitors bureau.

To do that, Visit Houston is launching a virtual reality experience that puts potential visitors at the center of the action. The experience, created with VR company YouVisit, will give viewers a 360-degree view of Houston's attractions such as the NASA Space Center, Minute Maid Park, the Houston Ballet and the city's museums and parks. It includes a tour guide avatar that offers brief explanations about each destination.

"We're trying to provide new visitors with experiences that are memorable, and therefore marketable," Waterman said. "We sat down and thought about the 12 most interesting venues that would entice people to watch the content. The hope is that once people see the content, they'll be so excited that they'll book a ticket to Houston."

People spend an average of 10 minutes watching YouVisit's VR pieces, which have also included experiences for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia and Alaska and Vietnam tourism. "In the online world, 10 minutes is an eternity," said Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit. "For travel destinations, when you're able to put that prospective traveler in a VR set and give them a glimpse of what it would be like to be there, their desire to experience it in real life jumps dramatically."

YouVisit also tracks viewer data, which will help Visit Houston inform its future marketing efforts based on how many people are watching, where they're located, and which destinations are grabbing their attention, Mandelbaum added.

"It lets the data do the talking. You look at what they're spending their time on, and then continue to enhance the experience and marketing message to hone in on things they're interested in," he said. "That informs the messaging that the destination can use to continue to attract more visitors and drive better results."

The VR experience should help Visit Houston reach its goal of 20 million visitors by 2018, an increase from 14.9 million in 2014 and 17.5 million in 2015, Waterman said. "When we go into a NASA buoyancy lab and capture astronauts training, or we film the Houston Ballet during the rehearsal, or the signing of the National Anthem at Minute Maid Park during an Astros game, that's content that people will want to watch. If we produce the right kind of content, people will want to consume it."

Mandelbaum expects more tourism organizations to embrace virtual reality in their marketing efforts in the future. "It's an experience that you can't get from Trip Advisor or Yelp," he said. "When you can get a traveler to feel what it's like to actually be there, it changes the game and moves your destination to the top of the list because you've offered them something memorable."

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.