23rd April 2008

VIRTUALLY YOURS: Are virtual worlds the future for meetings and events?

Far from being populated by teenagers with few social skills, virtual worlds like SecondLife are becoming home to a growing number of companies seeking to use the space for meetings and events. Pete Roythorne investigates…

With the gradual spreading of the workforce around the globe, it is becoming harder to foster and maintain close and effective working relationships. Traditionally, this role has been fulfilled by face-to-face meetings, but and effective and efficient alternative – something more personal and interactive than email – is also required when meeting in person just isn’t possible.

As such, virtual worlds are beginning to be used as a substitute for face-to-face meetings as a way of keeping the vital personal aspect to business communications. The use of virtual meetings can be viewed as a good alternative to face-to-face meetings, as it enables a direct interaction. But this should not be seen as a threat to the face-to-face meetings sector.

A range of larger companies, such as IBM, Reuters and PA Consulting, are already using the 3D web to support their business activities, and many more are developing their own presence in Second Life and using other virtual world applications.

“Virtual world applications offer scope for supporting a range of different business activities, not least networking, presentation, marketing and presentational facilities as part of the 3D web. Just as companies are currently offering these aspects of their business through their websites, now they have the option to take up similar activities in the 3D worlds available,” explains Dr Sara de Freitas, director of research at The Serious Games Institute (SGI) at Coventry University. “To run meetings in virtual worlds, companies can either hold them at the SGI business island in Second Life, for example, or set up their own islands and develop their own virtual resources.”

As with all new applications, the rise of virtual meetings does not mean that we will not meet in face-to-face contexts. Instead, it means that face-to-face conferences and events can be supported and integrated with new methods. There are, of course, external pressures that could drive companies down this route, and over a period of time the impact may be significant for certain sectors within the meetings and events market.

“Environmental and cost pressures are likely to lead organisations to explore alternatives to physical meetings,” says Peter Dunkley, director of depo consulting, a virtual worlds consultancy and developer. “The development of virtual worlds as business platforms provides a glimpse of a potential future with far less travel and physical infrastructure needed to support business activities.”

But like anything, there are pitfalls, and Second Life has taken a battering in recent months due to some of the content that has been found on there. “As with all new media, there's a need to be vigiliant about how it is used, the legal practices supporting its use and how interoperable the technologies are with existing applications. It is important that the same rules and practices are used within virtual spaces as apply in our real-life activities,” says de Freitas.

Dunkley focuses on some of the more practical concerns over virtual meetings. “At the moment, there are a number of issues that you have to bear in mind," he says. "First, I really wouldn't start with an event targeting a whole market that has no experience of virtual worlds. Even if you can get them onto Second Life, they will spend the entire event trying to work out how to move their 'avatar' [Second Life's representation of a person], walking into walls and falling off stairs... Start small and if possible focus on markets that are likely to have some experience.

“Also you have to be aware that we are operating in a very new environment and plan accordingly. You really don't want your £1,000-per-head event for corporate risk managers to be cut off half way through because Second Life is closing down for maintenance – avoid Wednesdays for meetings and events.

Far from being seen as a threat, virtual worlds could still be a positive thing for the meetings and events sector, not the least as they present the ability to attract a global audience at a fraction of the cost of any real-life event. The industry needs to embrace it in order to maximise its potential, whether that means opening a large conference and events centre in Second Life or redirecting some of your existing events into the virtual world. The key is to start to explore the opportunities on offer as quickly as possible.

So how can companies get started in Second Life? Russell Williams of Herd, Cow PR's social networking arm, has some practical tips. “The best way to get involved is to check it out – sign-up, log-on and spend a little time exploring the various options, just as you would in the real world. Once you’ve decided that a virtual world is right for you, it’s probably best to get talking with a company with a track record of putting on virtual.”

The offer of free meeting space may also be just the thing you need to get started. “Although depo is a developer, we like companies to get in touch with us to do projects,” says Dunkley. “We can make the sign up process easier and provide some initial training and support, as well as point you in the right direction for events and meetings. But you shouldn't think about spending any money building a presence until you've got some experience under your belt, and we provide our meeting rooms and auditoria free of charge to companies who are genuinely exploring the space.”

Virtual worlds are not just about computer games, and if large multinational organisations like IBM, Reuters and PA Consulting are in there then surely there’s scope for the rest of us. As workforces become more disparate and people place more emphasis on a healthy work/life balance, holding meetings and events in virtual worlds looks set to become ever more commonplace.

Useful contacts:
The Serious Games Institute
Kellie Keith k.keith@coventry.ac.uk

Depo Consulting