Road Warrior

Marriott guests use virtual reality to travel the world

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Marriott goes virtual in NY and London
Marriott goes virtual in NY and London

If comfy beds, fluffy towels and power plugs aplenty aren't enough for guests in New York and London, Marriott Hotels is happy to send them someplace else—in a virtual sense.

The hotel's "VRoom Service" test program runs through Sept. 23 at the New York Marriott Marquis and the London Marriott Park Lane. The pilot offers its guests room-service delivery of a virtual reality loaner kit, valued at about $900, and stocked with Samsung Gear VR headsets.

Marriott's devices are preloaded with short 360 three-dimensional (3D) virtual visits to the Andes Mountains in Chile, an ice cream shop in Rwanda, and the streets of Beijing. Called "VR Postcards," the one- to two-minute episodes run on Samsung's Milk VR open platform, and feature real travelers sharing stories about how much they learn from and value travel.

The program "uniquely combines storytelling and technology," said Michael Dail, Marriott Hotels' VP of global marketing. The headsets are "the newest way we're enhancing the in-room guest experience."

VRroom Service is but one of Marriott's menu of tech-forward amenities, which include a mobile application that lets guests request services and amenities, and its recently announced in-room streaming for subscribers of Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Crackle and YouTube.

Read More Travel without leaving your seat: Qantas goes VR

Getting an edge with virtual reality

"Wow!" music director Gustavo Dudamel says after viewing a virtual reality performance of the LA Philharmonic.
Beethoven rolls over into virtual reality
A file photo from The Burning Man festival in Blackrock City, Nevada
Bringing virtual reality to Burning Man

Nor is the hotel chain the only travel-oriented company experimenting with VR. Earlier this year, Qantas also turned to Samsung's headsets to offer first-class passengers a virtual in-flight experience. The company told CNBC this week that it added a new video feature that transports passengers via VR to the Great Barrier Reef.

In an out-of-room preview of possible travel-related virtual reality applications, last September, Marriott sent a 4-D "Teleporter" on an eight-city tour. Using Oculus Rift technology, passersby can step into a science fiction-inspired booth to "experience" a beach in Hawaii, and the view from a London skyscraper.

"We are disrupting our own industry, as we want to be the first to define the next-generation hotel experience," said Dail.

Frequent traveler and tech consultant Frank Catalano said he would welcome VR Postcards that offer tips on little-known must-sees in the city he's visiting. Yet for now, Dail says Marriott is more interested in using the technology to show "how others use travel to open their minds and what they take away from their trips, both professionally and personally."

Source: Marriott

Marriott is also hoping to catch the attention of the much sought-after millennial traveler.

"So many of our millennial guests are content creators themselves," Dail said. "We are interested to see how they use this technology and if they're inspired by the immersive aspects of virtual storytelling, as the technology is advancing so quickly."

Marriott is not the only brand bringing high-tech touches to the guest room, but at least for now, a few observers think the hotel chain has the competitive edge.

"Others are active, but not with the scope of Marriott," said Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. Marriott has been a leading innovator with lodging concepts, said Hanson, "but generally with a conservative approach and clear objectives."

With so many lodging choices for travelers, "anything and everything that can create a distinction, appeal to a need or preference or offer an experience" can give a hotel an edge with consumers, he added.

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.