22 July 2021

Kirsten Cowan shares details of a recent Adopt a Business initiative project with Interface, and how producing virtual reality content for the Wanlockhead Museum Trust and the Whithorn Trust has led to a positive business impact.
Man wearing virtual reality googles

People all over the world are acquiring virtual reality headsets, and this pace has only increased since the start of the pandemic. While these systems allow people to experience games in 360-degrees and have fun, they also provide a means of diversion, support fitness and wellbeing goals, and allow us to travel to faraway places.

On the business side of virtual reality usage, many local museums, destinations, and brands have produced content for these virtual reality headsets to connect with people in different manners. However, there are several challenges businesses face when adopting virtual reality technologies. Small, local businesses, for example, express the desire to integrate virtual technology but do not know how to get started.

In the spring of 2020, my colleague and I were approached by Mari Findlay of Interface, promoting an Adopt a Business initiative. In response to the pandemic, the initiative’s goal was to pair academics with Scottish tourist attractions based on academics’ expertise and the tourist companies’ goals. My colleague at the University of Glasgow, Dr Alena Kostyk, and I were paired with the Wanlockhead Museum Trust and the Whithorn Trust, each expressed a desire to integrate virtual reality technology into their business strategies.

From initial conversations, we were able to secure £3,700 from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account focused on the impact of Covid-19 on tourism and £2,500 from the University of Edinburgh Business School’s Internal Accelerated Impact Funding. With this funding, we were able to film different static 360-scenes and 360-videos for both museums.

Working with the Big Light, a Scottish podcast company, we enhanced the virtual content with narration. We developed these scenes and narrations based on our research investigating virtual reality. Finally, we funded the promotion of the content on the museums’ social media accounts.

Our prior research on virtual reality provided evidence that this type of content is more powerful in connecting with existing and new consumers compared to that of traditional videos and photos. In additon, our most recent research finds that integrating scent in these scenes, through either real scents or suggested scents, can heighten connections with consumers even more.

With the funding, we were able to promote both museums on social media using the virtual content, and even ran A/B testing using the Facebook function. Our goals was to increase the number of people following the museums and liking their content. We again found that the virtual content promoting scents, like the smell of the smoky fire in the roundhouse, were superior at engaging more individuals on social media and achieving our goals.

A secondary goal of the initiative was to make the sites more accessible for guests with disabilities. For instance, the Wanlockhead Museum Trust tour involves a descent into a mine with a narrow path. Through the funding, we were able to acquire virtual reality headsets for each museum to support their accessibility goals, and trained them on how to use these headsets.

As a result of our collaboration with the museums, Interface developed two case studies for their website and the Daily Record published a news article on the impact of the collaboration in June 2021. Ultimately, the Wanlockhead Musem ran a pre-Christmas pilot campaign to build a social media following, providing over 18,000 post engagements and over 1,500 link clicks. The number of followers they collected on their Facebook page increased by 17% during that initial campaign. Working with these museums has also enabled us to create a guide for small businesses on the steps to develop virtual reality content and best practices.

Since these local museums only operate within a short season and rely on tourism to fund their operations, the Covid-19 pandemic has kept their operations closed for over well over a year. However, by using social media and the virtual reality content, the museums were able to offer virtual tours despite the lockdown and will continue to do so during their off-seasons.

The Whithorn Trust also came up with the idea of a digital ticket, a for-purchase ticket launched Spring in 2021, designed to provide exclusive online interactive content. The online virtual reality social media campaign helped launch the digital ticket, increased purchases for the digital ticket, and supplemented their behind-the-scenes experience.

In the next phase of our project, we realise the potential that virtual reality might have for the tourist and cultural industries. In fact, the European Commission lists digital transformation of the tourism industry and mitigation of the negative consequences of Covid-19 as two of their top priorities. Given our initial funding and support to the museums, we have applied for Collaboration of Humanities and Social Sciences in Europe (CHANSE) funding for £1.5 million, with colleagues in Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland, to understand how virtual reality can positively transform European tourism markets. Mari Findlay, of Interface, has provided a statement of support to serve as one of our collaborative partners on this next endeavour.

Kirsten Cowan is Lecturer in Marketing and joint Head of Year 4 at the University of Edinburgh Business School