By Mihaela Lica, PR expert at Pamil Visions.
You may not like them anymore, but OTAs were instrumental in pushing bookings for hotels over the past 10 years.
Once Google Streetview was released, guests were given the opportunity to explore the world around most of the world's hotels, finding attractions, restaurants and other points of interest in their immediate vicinity.
This was also a huge step forward, in giving travellers the tools to make better, more informed decisions.
Now Photosynth adds a new dimension to this virtual world, something way better than Google's Streetview and Look Inside, because the technology to create 3D views of a place is made available, free of charge, to any user with a smartphone or a camera, whether they be professional or otherwise.
With Photosynth, Bing and Microsoft have touched on the holy grail of advertising.
The product is easy enough to use and cool enough to attract many early adopters, who will convert into Bing's "eyes" in no time, at virtually no cost for the company.
Yes, to include some of the coolest 3D tours of a specific destination into search, Bing would need a bit of human monitoring to start with, and solid guidelines to keep search clean.
Bing will also need a PR push, and a bit of advertising, but more than this, it will need incentives to attract adopters.
By the looks of things, Microsoft and Bing have a clean, clear strategy: first, introduce a product to fall in love with, then, get amazing photographers like Serge Ramelli to test it and to create tutorials for ordinary people to make the best out of Photosynth.
Then, once community momentum sets in, an ecosystem of photographic/travel interest is created, one with momentum. I spoke with Ramelli earlier today, and I quote:
“This technology gives a stronger immersion feeling than anything I have seen. In the future we will be able to visit places before going there, check out hotels, monuments. This will also help anyone that wants to promote a property to visit, to sell or rent.
"It's the kind of technology that changes the travel experience, the searching, the preparations. As a photographer I have tried a lot of technologies like time lapse, panoramas, Quicktime virtual tour. This one is the easiest I have ever worked with, anyone can do it.”
For hotels, the potential is unlimited. First, creating "inside" views that appeal to customers, should be paramount.
Then, keeping the guest experience flawless, to inspire guests to do their own photosynths, is a no brainer.
It follows that the great advantage for Bing will be when users look for hotels on this search engine, the photosynts should surpass low quality imagery, both on desktop devices, as well as their smarter and more mobile cousins like Microsoft's latest photo-centric Nokia (obviously no coincidence).
Photosynth has the potential to convert any user into a powerful brand advocate. Imagine a guest documenting a stay in a hotel on Photosynth.
He or she will take enough images to show every corner of the room, in 3D - and here's the catch.
Photosynth changes the way visitors used to review places. Instead of a static image, or expensive videos that needed editing, they now can show an immersive 3D panoramic view, without the need of any professional skills: aim, shoot, and let Photosynth do the rest.
Because Photosynth works with image recognition technology, Microsoft and Bing have the potential to grab a huge slice of the advertising market - of course, provided that they act before Google comes up with something similar, a move that is only a couple of months away, even if just by making available to the public technology that powers Google See Inside.
But until Google reacts, Bing and Microsoft still look like keeping a step ahead.
Next week, Serge Ramelli is scheduled to do a demo of how Photosynth can be used to showcase the best of a hotel, after an event sponsored by Bing at Hotel Felicien in Paris.
After this demo Bing may announce partnerships with thousands of hotels around the world to be featured in search on Bing Maps, places, Photosynth, and so on. The move, not yet confirmed, is nevertheless to be expected.
If Bing and Microsoft also manage to push Photosynth as a social media channel for everything travel, and photography, the potential is even greater.
This experiential synergy is made even more prominent because Photosynth eliminates the need for expensive satellite imagery, by making the public, the user, its main concern.
You will see destinations through the eyes of real people, you will experience a fresh perspective every time you search for something new.
“As we strive to recreate the world in all its beauty to help people make better decisions, tools like Photosynth allow us to take users past the words and explore all the richness that is reality,” says Stefan Weitz, director of search at Microsoft.
If you look back at Bing's latest moves in 2013, the interest in visuals is obvious: its recent "Hero Ads" count among the best, and most acclaimed by the media, marketing moves.
It doesn't take a social media guru, a seasoned PR, nor a rocket scientist to realise that Photosynth is designed to enhance mobile experience and to integrate with everything else Microsoft and Bing in the near future.
But stating that Bing will manage to challenge Google with this product, takes a bit of courage.
Still in its early stages, Photosynth can only succeed if it is widely adopted now, if it becomes second nature for users passionate about sharing travel impressions.
There are already apps that allow users to take 3D pictures at no charge: take Seene, for example, one of the most recent releases, that could count among Photosynth's competitors.
But no other app matches in terms of usability and end deliverables, and to match Photosynth before the new upgrades, is almost impossible.
Best Western and Google has struck a deal to do StreetView-ish inside tours of that chain’s inventory, which while significant, is nowhere near as meaningful as this latest Photosynth version’s capability.
This will be realised when and if it becomes a social network, where hotels and businesses can engage with the users who create the photosynths, where the best images are rewarded with a free stay, where reviews are encouraged.
Whatever does shake out between competitors in this mobile space, one thing seems certain, the end user will get a better experience in the end.
Imagine an exchange of impressions: Hotel Felicien in December, versus Hotel Felicien in March - guests can see, beyond doubt how a property maintains standards of quality, how it improves, and respond to guest feedback.
This is the future.
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