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April 16, 2008

VIRTUAL WORLDS:Threat or opportunity?

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 an 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 and events can be viewed as a good alternative to face-to-face meetings as it enables a ‘physical’ interaction. But this should not be seen as a threat to the face-to-face meetings sector.

“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,” says Dr Sara de Freitas, director of research at The Serious Games Institute, Coventry University, which studies the impact of new technologies such as virtual worlds on the business community. “These new approaches to meetings also may allow more disparate groups to stay in touch beyond the life of the face-to-face conference, and open up new ways of networking."



Virtually yours: Meetings in virtual worlds are
becoming increasingly popular


Under pressure

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 Russell Williams of Herd, Cow PR's social networking arm, believes this could still be a positive thing for the meetings and events sector. “Ultimately, I’d think that this could potentially offer a new, and lucrative, revenue stream for meetings and events companies," he assets. "If they traditionally offer real-world events, then they could be hosting virtual events alongside these to engage people that haven’t been able to make it and to generally extend the reach of their events. As this grows in popularity, there is always the potential to launch virtual world-specific offerings, but this will mean that they will have to have some way of keeping up to date with the technology.”

The key is to start to explore the opportunities on offer as quickly as possible. While virtual meetings or events might seem completely alien at the moment, it is not that different to running physical events in terms of the management of the event itself.

“I remember working with a large insurance company during the dot.com boom where they had a genuine fear that some teenager in a bedroom was going to take their business away from them," says Dunkley. "Of course, there were no teenagers out there that had the knowledge, experience or money to set up a real alternative on the web – we had to show them that this new channel was a far bigger opportunity than a threat.

"Our experience of running meetings and events has absolutely confirmed the same truth today: the organisation and management of the event doesn't change whether it is real or virtual, and existing meetings and events organisers have a significant advantage as long as they enter early enough.”

A need to be vigilant

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.

Managing the load
“A further point is that, although these spaces might look like real world halls, meeting rooms and auditoria, they are sitting on a computer. For the event to be successful – and the experience of the delegates good – you have to be able to manage the load on the server so that you don't suffer from lag, where everything slows down and begins to behave in unpredictable ways. Partly, this requires active management of visitor numbers, but it also needs knowledge of how to optimise the environment for performance. This is not a trivial task, but any of the full-service developers can provide this kind of support.”

The main thing is for meeting and events organisers not to be scared of this technology or see it as a threat. The events 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. In fact, as environmental awareness becomes a more pressing issue, this sort of technology may actually throw a valuable life line to the industry.


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