Virtual reality in tourism: Interview with Mari Pennanen from SaimaaLife

Virtual reality in tourism: Interview with Mari Pennanen from SaimaaLife
copyright: SaimaaLife

SaimaaLife is a Finnish story-based nature wellness and lifestyle media startup. Founded in 2016, the company exists to preserve and nurture the human-nature connection in the modern world. Its aim is to offer more people in the world a chance to feel better with the help of nature – just like the Finns have done for centuries, says Mari Pennanen, the mastermind behind SaimaaLife, in an interview with Elizaveta Ragozina for Travindy.

ELIZAVETA: Mari, could you tell a little about SaimaaLife and your journey as an entrepreneur?

MARI: SaimaaLife is named after Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland. Saimaa district is my home, the place where I was born and raised. Nature and well-being have always been my passion. While working in the tourism industry, I saw tourists developing a special connection to nature after visiting Finland. In my personal life I also came to rediscover it – Saimaa lake nature helped me to recover from burnout and depression. I realised how privileged I am to have an everyday connection to nature. In 2012, inspired by the realisation, I created the SaimaaLife blog to share my personal journey towards better natural wellbeing. By sharing the story, I wanted to give ideas and tips to others, as well as offer the connection to Finnish nature. Over time people from all over the world started to contact me to share how they were able to feel the calming and healing effects of the natural world through SaimaaLife content.

According to the studies we found, you can experience the positive effect of nature in any form, both online and offline. Thinking on how to deliver such an experience for SaimaaLife followers, we discovered virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree technologies. I was able to try the VR headset for the first time and realised that the virtual reality world is the way for me to take Finnish nature abroad. VR gives a strong feeling of presence, allowing me to take my followers with me to Saimaa. As we started to create VR/360-degree content, our future Japanese partners found us, and that led to cooperation.

We want SaimaaLife to become more than just a blog about the life of one woman, and turn it into a platform for a community of nature inspired individuals in Saimaa and from all around the world. Our goal is that in the future SaimaaLife offers various products and services, and they are all united in one theme – nature and better quality of life.

ELIZAVETA: SaimaaLife uses VR and 360-degree content as a part of visual storytelling. Can you explain shortly about the technology?

MARI: In short, VR is about presence and immersion with the help of a headset using 360 videos and photos. To make such material you need a 360 camera. There are different kinds of VR technology possibilities. We want SaimaaLife videos to help people to slow down, relax and focus on sensing the surroundings, so we choose to keep the camera still. That is done to minimise the malaise and dizziness effect of VR that can happen when the video surroundings is moving a lot.

ELIZAVETA: What is your experience with the VR/360 so far? What are the challenges you faced?

MARI: Immersive technologies are quite fascinating. However, as a new trend, they include a variety of challenges. Since VR technology is in its developing stage, the price of the equipment is still too high for many. That explains partly the limited usage of the VR. However, the usage of VR is growing. As a result, the headset prices are coming lower, and also the video quality is developing, so the picture becomes sharper. When it comes to the camera, the prices vary depending on the type of the camera. SaimaaLife uses professional camera equipment that shoots high quality videos to watch with the VR headset. We also have a small low price camera just for the purpose of live streaming, but the video quality is not as sharp.

The VR video editing process requires time, special knowledge and skills. Also an efficient computer is needed to handle the sheer size of the video files. Consequently, mentioned properties also affect the price of the ready-made product.

It is important to mention that not all media platforms support VR content and 360 technology. For hosting, SaimaaLife uses Facebook and Youtube. Plus VR videos require a solid internet connection so they can be watched in high quality.

Naturally people are careful when it comes to the new technologies. Thus it has been one of the biggest challenges to convince people to give VR headsets a try. However, every time I got someone to put them on and see our content, they all have been very fascinated and surprised how real the virtual experience is.

Virtual reality in tourism: Interview with Mari Pennanen from SaimaaLife
copyright: SaimaaLife

ELIZAVETA: How do your followers and clients respond to the interactive technologies? What is some of the feedback you’ve received?

MARI: During our VR development work we tested the VR videos in nursing homes among elderly and disabled people, and the feedback we have received was excellent. It opened our eyes to how real the experience was for them. The VR could allow them to experience being in nature without really going there. Additionally, many SaimaaLife followers watched our content at home and their feedback was positive as well. We also live-streamed 360-degree videos on Facebook, and viewers really enjoyed it. The most positive response was that such video gives freedom to move around the camera and let you see surroundings without any limitations.

Travel agencies have been keen in using VR, but since many have limited marketing resources, they are not ready yet to invest in interactive technologies as their marketing material. We also got feedback that some companies are reluctant to use VR for the reason that they are afraid customers might feel the virtual travel is enough and the sales of real tours will drop.

ELIZAVETA: SaimaaLife is not only about virtual stories. You already have the first Japanese SaimaaLife travel group that visited Saimaa. How does VR/360 contribute to business development?

MARI: Our travel site developed quite naturally. People who have followed SaimaaLife long enough started to dream about their own travel to Saimaa to experience this nature and lifestyle for real. So we, together with our cooperation partner in Japan, developed the SaimaaLife travel product, and brought the first travel group to Saimaa together with the tour operator.

It has become very clear that VR helps us to get people to buy real SaimaaLife travel products. For example, our Japanese partners organised events in Tokyo, where visitors have been able to use VR headsets to see Saimaa nature virtually. The feedback has been that the opportunity to visit the place virtually has increased a person’s willingness to travel to Saimaa.

ELIZAVETA: Could you describe the process of creating the VR/360 content.

MARI: The pre-production phase includes planning and video script writing. It is important to figure out the purpose of the ready material, as it affects the type of the content. We plan when we are going to shoot the video, who will be in the video, and where it will happen.

Closer to the videoing day, it is all about checking the weather forecast, because, for example, the 360 camera is an eyeball, so you can not shoot when it rains.

During the shooting day(s) we also often take 360 marketing photos for the customer. Video editing services are bought from our partner. When we are making videos for the customer, usually we also order the VR headsets for them and establish the accounts. After everything is ready we install the final video to the VR headset and deliver it to the client together with the 360 photos. In addition to that we provide the technical guidance on how to use the VR headset and publish the material.

Virtual reality in tourism: Interview with Mari Pennanen from SaimaaLife
copyright: SaimaaLife

ELIZAVETA: What advice can you give to companies in the tourism industry who want to start using immersive technologies for their business?

MARI: When you work with a new technology it often requires you to do extensive research about the topic. Look for articles and studies to learn more. Second, contact a company that works with VR/360. They are professionals so they can really help you to understand what it requires to make or utilise VR/360 content, how much it costs and whether it is really something that can be useful for your company. This way you get a realistic view.

If you want, you can invest in a low-budget 360 camera to try it out yourself. Be creative and explore the technology’s potential. Or order 360/VR content production from a company who is a professional on the field and has all technology and skills ready.

ELIZAVETA: What is your opinion on VR/360 contribution to tourism development?

MARI: I believe that humans will always have a desire to travel and experience things in the real world. VR functions as a complement to traditional traveling and partly reduces the need for some journeys. However, it will not replace it. Additionally, the VR tours might become an opportunity for people with travelling limitations to see the world.

I think that VR has a potential to become a great marketing tool for destinations.

The technology will change the way we look for our next trip, allowing the “try before buy” experience.

I also see more and more travellers becoming conscious about the negative environmental effect of the travel industry on the world. As a result, responsible tourism is growing. VR technologies are there to support.

Elizaveta Ragozina
Elizaveta Ragozina
Elizaveta is a GSTC certified sustainable tourism enthusiast and a digital marketer with experience in helping social enterprises to reach their goals

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