How virtual-reality apps are (really) changing hospitality



Michael C. Cohen, managing partner of the Growth Advisors International Network (GAIN), joins host Robin Trimingham to discuss how the metaverse and virtual-reality technology are changing not only the way people travel, but how they research and book it, too.






Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Michael Cohen: You and I remember when we would spend Sunday afternoon with family and Uncle Joe and Aunt Sally came back from their first trip to Europe, and we spent 2.5 hours watching Kodak slides. We now will have the ability with some shared headsets or on a mobile device, which by the way, is a supercomputer in every customer’s hand to actually now share virtually immersively our experience, rock climbing in Hawaii. And now grandma could be there with us and our six year old niece can be there with us and we can share that experience post. That’s why this is perfectly placed for travel and hospitality globally. 

Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators as. Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. In the hospitality industry, we continue to hear about new Metaverse business applications for the global travel and hospitality sectors. But the question everyone’s asking is, is this real? More specifically, are there products currently in development with viable hospitality sector applications that actually will be game changers for the hospitality industry? My guest today, Michael Cohen, managing partner of the Growth Advisors International Network, also known as GAIN, is here today to address just that and hopefully shed some light on ways hoteliers can learn to leverage experiences that blend the physical and the virtual worlds. Join me now for my conversation with Michael. For the last 50 years, Groupe GM has been a leader in the luxury cosmetic amenities industry. The group proposes a 360 solution from manufacturing to distribution with over 40 international brands in its worldwide distribution network. Groupe GM offers different shapes and sizes of eco friendly products in hotels all over the world. Discover more on That’s group with an E Welcome, Michael. It’s great to chat with you today. 

Michael Cohen: My pleasure, Robin. Really wonderful to be here and looking forward to a really interesting conversation. 

Robin Trimingham: Well, as am I. As you may be aware, I’ve interviewed quite a few people who are involved in different aspects of AI. So I think we better start here because this one’s a little bit different. Can you briefly explain what is the Growth Advisors International Network and what led to the establishment of this organization? 

Michael Cohen: Yeah, appreciate it. First of all, Growth Advisors International Network or Gain is a global organization of senior level C-suite SVP level travel technology, immersive executives in all realms of the industry in the commercialization side, the funding side, the IT or technology space, meaning like CTO, etcetera, and finance and funding. So it’s very much of a well rounded advisory organization. There was a need in the market, frankly, with the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, a large swath of senior level executives were retiring or changing industry. And with the pandemic and specifically in travel and hospitality and some immersive technology space as well, there was a real brain drain and myself and some other very experienced, much smarter than me, executives, put this together in a very meaningful framework. To deliver impact, advice, growth and success to the global travel, hospitality and immersive technology space. 

Robin Trimingham: So I think you could have gone a lot of different directions with the kind of team that you’re talking about. What first got you interested in business applications for Metaverse Tech, for the hospitality sector? 

Michael Cohen: Well, what’s interesting is engagement and immersion. So that’s a more general terms. I didn’t say metaverse. I didn’t say the word metaverse yet. You said it. But I’m getting at is in travel, hospitality and other retail restaurant guest facing, passenger facing, customer facing industries in general where there’s a service component and an experiential component. Experience people are paying for an experience. So immersive technologies, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, etcetera. They’re ideally suited to drive incredible utility, massive engagement and expanded loyalty. So in our vernacular, when we’re involved with Metaverse Immersive Technologies, etcetera. If we’re in a meeting or with a newly funded startup or maybe a global brand entity, the filter that we always use for every conversation, every idea, every technology in this particular space is. Does it drive utility? Does it increase engagement and does it expand loyalty? And if it doesn’t, then we change the conversation or we decide to talk about something else. 

Robin Trimingham: Okay. Well, you should have most of our listeners sitting on the edge of your seat because you just used two key words that every hotelier can appreciate engagement and loyalty. But before we dig a little deeper here, I think we better sidebar and explain to everybody what actually is the difference between metaverse and virtual reality and how are they being brought together to create new travel experiences? Because for the first time I heard about Metaverse, I’m thinking like those virtual reality goggles. And that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about at all. 

Michael Cohen: No, it’s very true. And there’s a real requirement for this delineation in general for the business community, tech community and the travel and hospitality space. So virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality. They’re innovative technologies. They require some piece of hardware, some sort of very strong connectivity. Etcetera. The metaverse is an immersive destination. The metaverse is a place that could be a digital twin of something in the IRL in real life, or it’s a destination or experience that can only be imagined in this digital landscape. So VR, ar, AR, those are technologies that are the facilitating platform technologies of many things that happen in the metaverse. But the metaverse is an immersive destination. 

Robin Trimingham: I love you just simplifying it down to that level because when you say destination, okay, there’s something that a hotelier can latch onto. Let’s change the conversation just a little bit here. So Accenture put out their 2022 Consumer Pulse survey at the end of last year, and it found, at least in the retail sector, that surprisingly, 42% of their survey respondents had visited a retailer in the virtual world to do things like get advice, make a payment or browse a product range before making a physical purchase. And another 56% said they planned to give this kind of thing a try in the next year, even though they hadn’t yet. Why do stats like that lead you to say that consumers are going to have the same kind of level of interest in the travel sector? 

Michael Cohen: Well, a couple of things. I’m not sure if that data happened before, during or after the pandemic, but in general, obviously, we all know this. The pandemic amplified and accelerated virtual scenarios work from home, virtual events, etcetera. So in general, the acceptance and comfort, more importantly for consumers, guests, passengers, patrons to interact with a brand or interact with an experience or interact with a potential purchase virtually remotely through some sort of either two dimensional, three dimensional or immersive platform is become normal life. It’s a normal part of life now, and it’s also broken through all demographics. So what’s really key is why that’s applicable to travel and hospitality globally is it’s all about present and post. Amazing thing about immersive technologies and the metaverse is it enables experiential interaction. Free. So research. I want to see what it’s like at this resort. Maybe walk on the beach, virtually interact with something while I’m making a selection. Do I want to upgrade to a larger suite? Do I want to have my corporate event at this particular convention center? These are all pre experiential impact for the metaverse and virtual technologies. Present means within destinations, locations, museums, all types of tourist or public spaces, hotel travel or otherwise. 

Michael Cohen: The ability now, which is happening all over the world, adding layers of engagement, layers of experience that are virtual and digital on top of the traditional physical space. That’s a big part of this as well. So that’s the present post is where it’s fascinating. You and I remember when we would spend Sunday afternoon with family and Uncle Joe and Aunt Sally came back from their first trip to Europe and we spent 2.5 hours watching Kodak slides. Now it’s happening is that the sharing of immersive virtual experiences that I or my family have experienced at a Marriott property in Hawaii, we now will have the ability with some shared headsets or on a mobile device, which by the way, is a supercomputer in every customer’s hand, because the technology only gets more impactful and proficient to actually now share virtually Immersively our experience rock climbing in Hawaii and now Grandma could be there with us and our six year old niece can be there with us and we can share that experience. Post That’s why this is perfectly placed for travel and hospitality globally.

Robin Trimingham: I completely agree with you. And I think what I would say to some of our listeners is until you have the opportunity to try some of this stuff yourself, you may have struggle to understand the appeal. I have a business colleague who has access to a piece of virtual reality where you can actually walk around inside an Egyptian pyramid. It is the coolest thing on the face of the earth, and it’s like you’re really standing there in Egypt. It’s just mind blowing what this technology can do. So at least for the time being, the metaverse isn’t really intended, though, to replace physical travel, but simply to provide a complementary enhancement that consumers are going to appreciate. Can you give us a couple of real world examples of how this is being used in the hospitality sector at the moment? 

Michael Cohen: Sure. The Atlantis properties have implemented on premise, so they have they have pre on premise and in post abilities to interact with some of the amenities on property. So what’s interesting is pre you have an ability to select and change and pre experience some of the common areas and understand why you want to upgrade to a more luxurious suite on premise. Part of the fun is instead of having just the old 1980s video arcade, they now have an immersive arcade where they have systems and headsets lined up along a wall where you could go there and interact with content that obviously is specific to Bermuda or something that where you’re at. And then at the end they are providing content that you can take and you do own an Oculus to or some sort of VR headset. You have the ability to kind of remember your experience at the Atlantis, for example. That kind of thing is happening on multiple brands. We’re involved again with a series of clients doing that as well. We’ve actually launched a meta visor group within Gain, so we have a subgroup within the global technology hospitality, retail, food service technology space that’s specifically geared towards the metaverse, the immersive technology. So a meta visor group within gain as well. 

Robin Trimingham: I guess there’s just going to be new applications coming up all the time. Let’s talk a little bit about how all of this is going to actually impact the hotel industry. Have we reached or are we fast approaching a point where hiring somebody who’s very tech savvy first is going to be even more important than what we’ve traditionally done in hospitality and which is hire people with really great customer skills or are you perpetually going to need the perfect person who’s a happy mixture of both of those? 

Michael Cohen: Well, I’m going to pivot a little bit on the answer, but first I’ll go specific to what you’re saying. A couple of things is remember, we all know this, that in the usually in the hospitality industry, we’re a little bit slower to implement being very polite in what I’m saying right now. And that’s fine. That’s the nature of the industry. It’s quite conservative every hotel. Tell a snowflake it’s a thousand points of light. It’s difficult to deploy technology and make it consistent. So what’s happening now is, yes, the reality is that the talent pool first on the consumer side, the Gen Z, consumers are already living a phygital life, physical digital life. They have expectations that in their consumption of travel and hospitality services or experiences, that that’s going to continue. So this phygital life is expanded into their travel and hospitality experiences. That’s the first thing. Second thing is the hiring pool. The 20s and early 20s, mid 20s, late 20s, they’re incredibly digital. They’re very open to this technology. So it’s not that they have to be tech savvy. They already have tech as an integral part of their life. So that’s a big thing. One last thing I want to add and we need to talk about this briefly, but it’s a very important component. We talked a lot about let’s call it front of the House now. Let’s talk very briefly about back of the House. The real impact of immersive technologies, even more so than on guests and patron and consumers is the staff, the ability to train staff and have very high retention of training, content and practices. All this incredibly important, some would say minutia of running a hotel or a restaurant or airport. That training cycle, it’s massively reduced with this technology. So that’s far more efficient, far more retention, less turnover. 

Michael Cohen: When you combine that with the challenge of hiring and finding quality staff, it’s a really big move for the industry because you can actually test. People are using virtual technology content in the interview process to see if someone has a general aptitude to the particular field or particular job description that they’re interviewing for. So you can actually filter out in a far more efficient way remotely candidates. So it’s interview, it’s HR, it’s big time training. And the last thing I’ll just add is that there’s a wide array of mystical data that when you work in a hotel or a restaurant or an entity like that, at the property level or the physical level, you need to know certain things about the property, the physical plant, etcetera. There’s technology that’s being implemented by us and our clients and many others that actually puts a virtual overlay on a hotel or a restaurant on the physical plant of the building, the basement, the boiler and all the particular information when it’s really cold at the Marriott Marquis and in Times Square in New York and it’s minus X and the boiler is starting to have problems. Joe, the engineer who’s been there for 35 years, he knows to go downstairs, kick the boiler twice and turn it to the right three times. That’ll make the boiler work. He’s retiring. He changes position. That knowledge is gone. There’s now technology utilizing the supercomputer where you can put a virtual overlay over the area around the boiler and virtual notes are all over different areas. Do this, do that, punch this. When this happens, it’s like virtual sticky notes that nobody can see unless you have a PIN code access and you’re watching it through your phone. 

Robin Trimingham: Did you know that offering top cosmetic brands is a delight for your guests? For the last 50 years, Groupe GM has been a leader in the luxury amenity industry. The group proposes a 360 solution for manufacturing to distribution on cosmetic amenities and dry accessories, with over 40 international brands such as Guerlain Nukes, Atelier Cologne. The group offers different shapes and sizes of eco friendly products in hotels all over the world. This is possible thanks to its worldwide distribution network. Thanks to their Care about the Earth Program, you can offer your guests top cosmetic products with a reduced environmental impact. Discover more on That’s Group with an E, That’s very interesting. And I love how many thousands of applications there probably are for something like that. Correct. Let’s talk about something a little more controversial. Well, at least it will be to our listeners, maybe not to you and me. I understand that one of the viable business applications of the metaverse is that ultimately it will enable people around the world to attend an event and interact with each other at a virtual conference. Some of our listeners are going to feel like this is science fiction, but how close would you say we are to being able to do something like that If it catches on, what’s the impact going to be to some of the traditional convention centers and conferences? 

Michael Cohen: Well, I’ve also been involved in the virtual event industry for the past four years, recently transitioned out of that company and into game. The physical face to face will never go away. It is still the most impactful, important and real experience and humans need to be when it’s appropriate, need to be in physical range and really connect that way. But doing more with less budget, doing more with harming the globe, environmentally reacting in a more efficient manner. So you have more selected in-person events or selected engagements that are in person, but you get to do a much wider experience, a much more connectivity and networking and engagement virtually. So for example, holographic attendance is happening today. I’ll repeat holographic beaming yourself to the event is happening right now. Some people have heard this and they’ve seen some things on YouTube, but there’s a series of companies we’re working with one of them where there’s actually these like a light box basically that’s deployed at a physical event, either on stage, if they’re a presenter or in an exhibit hall or etcetera. And I’m in a studio and I’m physically beamed. It’s a holographic, very three dimensional version of Michael Cohen standing there. And if we would, we would touch you would obviously see the wall of glass. But beyond that, experientially it’s like I’m there in person. So economies of scale, Murphy’s Law, the technology is getting to a price point and the computing power and the connectivity impact is all kind of correlating right now. Where to answer your question, holographic, remote, in-person attendance is not science fiction. It’s happening today. And it’s going to only expand over the next 5 to 10 years. 

Robin Trimingham: I don’t know if I would have thought that it would really catch on until we had the lockdown. I am home based on the island of Bermuda. We are 650 miles out to sea from the east coast of the United States, and we had no flights in or out for six months. Boy, would I have liked that virtual light box thing then because yeah, it would have made communicating and interacting with people in other countries so much easier. So some experts are predicting that the metaverse will simply create a desire to travel. To what extent do you feel that this is true or not true? And why do you say this again? 

Michael Cohen: I use the term before that. The metaverse, in my opinion, is really a platform for a destination. Now, that doesn’t entirely mean just a travel destination. It means a place, a location that is incredibly immersive, that creates feeling and emotional engagement to what you’re at involved, consuming, etcetera. When we talked about remember, we talked about pre the pre side of things, pre experiential, that’s huge because right now, for example, in a two dimensional world, which this didn’t exist ten years ago, you go on YouTube today and there’s millions upon millions of hours of travel, video logs and travel experiences. Ces and travel influencers who are producing all this content high def 4k content of Panama City, the San Blas Islands, Bermuda, etcetera. And that’s like now I’m very kind of generic, easy to consume scenario. The next wave of that will be either when I slide in my phone into a headset, I’ll be deep in underwater off the coast of Panama. Shark shark week type tours or I will be having a headset that’s now maybe three $400. I’ll decide. And that’s incredibly immersive. And I’ll have the audio and I’ll have some haptic experiences, etcetera. 

Michael Cohen: But I’m going to be pre experiencing walking up to Machu Picchu. It’s not the same, but it’s very immersive. And I may decide, Honey, it’s time for us to go here and let’s do that $10,000 trip, or let’s go to that cruise to Greenland with Royal Caribbean Cruises. We’ve always wanted to do it. But you know what? It looks so amazing. Let’s do it. So the pre experience scenario of real world travel locations is exploding. It’s happening today and it will be the standard. Absolutely. In the next five years. Digital twins, that’s what we’re talking about. Secondarily, there’s going to be places that don’t exist and those will be travel experiences. People will pay for them. They want to go to the moon. They want to go to Mars. That will be commercialized. Major travel brands will have virtualized hotels on Mars. And we’re not talking about having to fly there, but people will decide, I want to spend a day on a martian experience and it will be sponsored by some brand who will sell it as a product. And that’s what’s happening. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah, I can see Disney being all over that. 

Michael Cohen: Yeah, Disney is heavily into much of this stuff. Yeah, because it’s also things like Robin, there’s. There’s web3. There’s NFTs things we haven’t we may not cover today. But one thing about the metaverse, just if I could very briefly, the metaverse is a destination, but it’s also an amalgamation of VR, AR, which is driven by this WEB3, which is the next generation of the Internet that has incredible security, blockchain, all types of data flows, transactions at high speed that are very secure and NFTs which people think now are just a novelty or some sort of investment boondoggle. But NFTs actually are these are keys, literally keys to unlock more from a brand’s loyalty program, etcetera. So I’m actually speaking in April at NFT NYC. So the largest NFT conference in the world on travel and hospitality applications for Nfts. So it’s real as well, but it’s part of the metaverse tech stack. Guess that builds that experience. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah, no, I totally agree with you about the Nfts. You and I, as you said earlier, are a little bit older. We remember when everybody said the Internet was a fad, when everybody said, Oh, there is no business application, it’s just a bunch of storefronts. It’ll never catch on. It’s just simply a function of, okay, the nfts have gone up, up, splat in some cases, not all. Of course, they’ve gotten everybody’s attention and now they’re going to fix the problems. Now it’ll become, I would say, really, really viable. And I’m not the expert on any of this stuff by any means. So what do you feel that these new experiences will offer in terms of a bridge between the physical world and the metaverse? Is it going to catch on faster in somewhere That’s really got a history of being tech savvy like Japan or somewhere that’s been truly inaccessible in a lot of instances like Africa. What do you say is going to happen here? 


Michael Cohen: I’m not going to give you the answer that you maybe want. It’s going to be both societies that are first world, that have incredible connectivity, have some dispensable income to purchase these add ons to life. These digital add ons to life. They they already are. Those adoption rates are quite high and they will grow. I mean, you know, people are like up and down and meta’s doing this and doing that. But look, 20 million meta headsets have been sold. Is it the most successful technology roll out ever? It’s one of them. It just happens to be really expensive to sell a piece of hardware like that. And that will change over time and it’ll change in some way that we don’t know right now because that’s how the world works. In regards to developing nations, I just spent a significant period of time in South and Central America utilizing virtual technologies, utilizing this kind of experience, and I was running a global business at the time. But what was fascinating is it was about five years, six years since I’ve been in these regions. So let’s call them Second world countries. And the proliferation of fully powerful smartphone technology with 5G connectivity was unbelievable at the. The most under middle class level all the way, of course, through the upper class. But I could not believe the penetration of the supercomputer in the hand of all these people, which is amazing in different parts of the world. So what I’m getting at is particularly augmented reality, which is a virtual overlay on the physical world, whereas virtual reality mostly is an entirely virtualized world that doesn’t it may be a digital twin of the physical world, but it doesn’t exist in the physical world. Augmented reality is a digital immersive overlay on the physical world, and that’s where augmented reality and that’s where this device is really king And that’s in those parts of the world. Augmented reality is exploding already, but will explode because it’s quite cost effective for the consumer to interact with it. Whereas virtual reality and the more expensive investments are proliferating in the traditional Korea Japan type regions where part of life. 

Robin Trimingham: Love the point that you make about the barrier to entry being easier if all you need is a cell phone because you’re right, in huge parts of the world, every individual can aspire to having a cell phone. So I can see how this will expand. Okay. So we have a couple of minutes left here. And I think it’s fair to say to our listeners that the things we’re talking about today, it’s not really a matter of if they will happen, but when will they come to pass and gain mainstream adoption. So what’s your key message for everyone who hears this broadcast? 

Michael Cohen: It’s not even when it’s how the when is it’s going to happen in different regions and different industries at different times. But it’s the how that’s really important. And I think the message I would give is have an open mind, understand your business, travel, hospitality. Otherwise, as you do incredibly well, focus all of your contemplation and thoughts on the pre present and post of your interaction of your service with your guests, patrons, customers and passengers in our particular industry really look at the successful methodologies you have, the frameworks you have today and see how an overlay of innovation that’s immersive can expand, enhance and open new avenues. So new products and services, new revenue streams. This is going to be about differentiation. It’s going to be about competitive advantage. I mean, in a weird way, think about high speed Internet and Wi-Fi 15, 20 years ago where and I was in that world and I was a VP with a series of Wi-Fi and IP network companies, and it was all about that competitive advantage and who would have the best and faster because guests, patrons and other at home, they had a better experience than than they had in a restaurant or a hotel or a convention center or a stadium. So that was that whole thing. Same sort of thing is starting to happen and will happen within the travel, hospitality and restaurant space. So about your core business principles of what works, what differentiates you from your competitors, and then spend the time, meet with experts, advisors, but really talk to people who know about the innovative immersive space and see how they overlay, see what new opportunities can be developed, but see how you can maximize and amplify your existing successful methodology for your business with this new technology. 

Robin Trimingham: I think you’re absolutely right. It’s all about expanding and improving and enhancing what you’ve already got as opposed to any thought that you have to completely restart. Michael, I want to thank you so much for your time today. I think this has been a fascinating conversation. We’ve given people an awful lot to think about. You’ve been watching the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders. 


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