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July 14, 2008

THE VIRTUAL DEBATE:Where do you stand on holding meetings in Second Life?

Second Life has been around for some time now, and although many brands have established a presence there, and some, like IBM, have used it to communicate to their staff through virtual meetings, it is still very much seen as a curiosity, and more the stuff of gaming than business.

Until MEETINGS:review began reporting on Second Life’s potential from a meetings and events perspective at the beginning of this year, very little had been written about virtual events and the benefits they offer. These articles generated some interesting feedback and set the scene for MEETINGS:review’s pioneering recent roundtable video debates in our own virtual events space in Second Life. The initiative brought together experts from New Zealand and the UK to discuss the virtual meetings issue, without having to leave their offices.

These two striking and powerful videos have helped to bring home the true business potential (if currently a little limited) of the medium, and, as you might expect, drew even more comments from meetings and event industry professionals. These ranged from responses that can only be described as bordering on protectionism, to reasoned critique and enthusiasm.

The fear factor
As a key representative of an organisation that should surely carefully consider any technological innovation that has a potential impact on its members, the outgoing Events Industry Alliance group chief executive Trevor Foley’s reaction to the MEETINGS:review Second Life debates appears a little too dismissive.

"I watched [the video interview] and was completely distracted by the strange movements of the avatars and couldn't, as a result, take in what they were saying!” he says.

Sure, the video interviews are a little alien on first viewing, but many people report becoming used to them by the end their first watch and being fully engaged upon viewing them again. So a little perseverance can certainly pay dividends.

Foley does, however, admit that the virtual medium has some potential, although he’s keen to stress that this would not be as a replacement to real-world events.

“Its day will come in some form,” he says, “but not to the exclusion of face to face, which is much more fun, interactive, personal, memorable, energising, friendly and engaging.”

Environmental benefits
Foley’s colleague, Association of Event Venues director Tom Treverton, although just as protective of real-world events, does acknowledge the sustainable potential of virtual events.

“The globally shared quest to lessen our impact on the environment is a clear, and strong example of why chairing a meeting online from the UK, with guests from as far a field as New Zealand in attendance, makes a lot of sense,” he says.

Michael Scroop, chief executive and founder of meetings and events technology company Parrimark, also acknowledges the environmental issues, but stresses the need to maintain the personal touch.

“Second Life is definitely opening up doors, providing opportunities and uniting people from all over the world,” he says. “It is also great for playing a part in reducing delegates’ carbon footprints. However, it’s about allowing technology to enhance and improve the experience, not remove the human interaction between individuals.”

Better value
Meanwhile, David Marrinan-Hayes, digital development manager of venue The Hospital Club, in London, is keen to stress the money virtual meetings and events can save companies.

“For organisations that undertake masses of travel, the cost and time savings in using Second Life as a communication tool will be phenomenal,” he says. “Companies, such as Rivers Run Red, that are developing enterprise applications, will save businesses hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds annually in flight savings and lost productivity. Not to mention the environmental impact of reducing the number of carbon emissions associated with travel (not just flights, but also transfers and hotel stays).”

Marrinan-Hayes also points out the superiority of the medium over videoconferencing.

“The communications systems within Second Life are just as effective if not more so than plain conference calling or even multi-million pound high-definition videoconferencing,” he says. “Unlike conference calling, where sound is mono-directional, having a meeting in Second Life is equivalent to a real-world meeting with voice assigned to individuals and coming from the direction in which they are sitting. It's a more psychologically naturalistic way of processing of information for people, which reduces the number of interpersonal barriers that are traditionally experienced in conference calling.”

Supporting face to face
Last year, The Hospital Club staged an art exhibition in Second Life, which matched a real-world exhibition in the venue’s gallery. Entitled Warhol vs Banksy, it received a huge amount of international press attention, and rather than disappointing international art lovers, it allowed them to experience the joy of viewing the artworks and interact with fellow gallery goers without incurring the cost and hassle of a trip to London. The exhibition was phenomenally successful with an international audience – particularly in Brazil and the US, and increased footfall by a factor of two.

Using the virtual medium in this way, to enhance or extend events held in the real world, can be particularly effective, and is the reason why those who dismiss Second Life out of hand are missing a trick. As Spencer Wright, head of digital activation and experiential agency RPM, points out: “Prince Charles should have used Second Life to address the World Future Energy Summit. While he left no carbon footprint, the team that delivered his hologram did and he couldn't even field live questions.”

The fear over virtual events threatening the existence of those held in the real world appears to be distracting people from realising that, not only can the medium be used to enhance the live experience, but also its cost effective nature allows companies to hold more events, which in turn helps confirm the importance of internal and external live marketing overall.

Email your views on virtual events to [email protected]

Next week, look out for two astute opinion pieces on MEETINGS:review’s roundtable debate on virtual events.

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