Destinations like Las Vegas or Dubai could be top of mind for many planners of major corporate gatherings, but have you considered the moon for your next big business event? 

Rather than booking attendees on a red-eye flight, the Ramon Foundation, which supports educational programmes in science, aviation, and space, recently convened a few hundred employees, grantees and supporters on a lunar space station – not a trip across the universe, but into the metaverse, the digital world traditionally inhabited by gamers but increasingly studied by companies seeking to bridge the gap between Zoom calls and in-person meetings in the post-Covid world.

When Facebook in October 2021 said that it was changing its name to Meta, announcing that “Meta is helping to build the metaverse, a place where we’ll play and connect in 3D,” it was the loudest signal yet that this virtual world could become part of the mainstream. And just as tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become ubiquitous in facilitating small-group meetings in the corporate world, getting together in the metaverse – an immersive virtual world facilitated by the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology – has become a viable alternative to events of every size, including sales conferences, corporate retreats, and trade shows.

“VR allows you to have natural interactions in a virtual space,” said Tomas Budrys, customer success manager at MeetinVR, a company that facilitates small and midsize virtual meetings for corporate clients globally. The fundamental experience of meeting in the metaverse – navigating an artificial 3D environment aided by avatars and headsets – has its origins in gaming, says Budrys. “These tools are built on gaming engines, but it’s not quite playing a game: it’s a game built for business purposes,” he explains.

Designing virtual meeting spaces is the bread and butter of Allseated, which has a database of more than 100,000 floorplan templates that can be populated with 10,000-plus 3D objects from tradeshow booths to video screens, decorative plants to landscapes. Allseated CEO Yaron Lipshitz recently demonstrated a live virtual tradeshow on its Meetaverse platform, using a personal avatar to navigate to breakout rooms and among booths to watch video presentations and converse with other attendees roaming the space with their own avatars. 

Admins controlled the opening and closing of meeting rooms, and individuals had the power to accept or reject participants in conversations, offering a high degree of control on both the facilitator and individual level.

“Zoom is a wonderful tool when you have a one-on-one meeting,” said Lipshitz during an interview conducted via Zoom. “The challenge is when you get beyond one-on-one or one-on-a-few. How do you recreate the experience of being in a meeting that we knew from prior to the pandemic? How do you get people not to just consume content, but to be active participants?”

Unlike what global travel technology evangelist Johnny Thorsen calls “square meeting technology” like Zoom, digital environments can deliver what Lipshitz calls “a sense of presence,” whether that’s being in a convention centre, at a rooftop happy hour, or even a space station on the moon. 

“There’s a notion of experience and exploration. You’re not just on a call, but able to look around,” he says. “There’s the serendipity of interaction, of meeting and shaking hands. In the 3D environment, that’s much easier to accomplish.”

“There’s a notion of experience and exploration. There’s the serendipity of interaction, of meeting and shaking hands. In the 3D environment, that’s much easier to accomplish”

Allseated’s Yaron Lipshitz

Branding is also an important differentiator for meetings in the metaverse. When makeup artists, buyers and others attended Sephora’s virtual press day on Meetaverse, for example, they entered a custom-designed Virtual House of Beauty splashed with logos and brand imagery to hear presentations from company CEOs, get information on new product launches, and earn points redeemable for Sephora products by attending sessions and playing games. 

A business meeting using VR and AR technology, such as 7-Eleven’s global CEO conference, hosted by Allseated, might not be as flashy, but many of the same capabilities carry over to the corporate world. “Virtual twinning” can recreate any physical meeting space in the metaverse, allowing attendees around the world to experience a meeting at headquarters in a branded setting, for example. Gamification can be used to reward attendees for completing certain tasks, such as earning points for every interaction they make at a networking event.

Tuning out of a Zoom meeting is as simple as turning off your camera, but digital environments not only are more engaging but harder to disappear from, experts say. “People spend more time interacting because it’s easy,” says Thorsen, who cited data showing that person-to-person interaction is twice as high at virtual tradeshows versus live ones.

“You lose the random effect. Having a targeted list of who you want to meet is very easy in this environment,” he says. The ability to collect potentially valuable data on attendee behaviour is also huge. “In the real world you can have 15,000 steps at a big convention centre, and there’s little information on who you meet,” he says. “In digital it’s all tracked, and all conversations are stored.”

Lipshitz said the strongest use cases for virtual meetings in the corporate world include tradeshows, HR activities like teambuilding and onboarding, networking and next-generation webinars that can be used to nurture leads and allow prospective customers to engage with both people and content. 

“We’ve closed deals virtually where before would require getting on a plane multiple times,” he says.

A new era of interaction

“The events industry is forever changed,” says Beau Ballin, VP and global market leader at CWT Meetings & Events. “Certain meetings will totally happen in the virtual space, like first sales calls; small team meetings with seven or eight direct reports will no longer happen in person.” Town halls are another category of meeting that likely will go digital for good, he says.

Budrys says the potential for VR and AR technology shines through for teambuilding and collaboration, from group activities like designing a company coat of arms on a digital canvas to “foresight workshops” to brainstorm around the future of work and engaging in “lightning decision jams” to come up with solutions to specific problems.

The idea of interacting in a virtual environment isn’t new. As early as 1982 it was the basis of the movie Tron, the term “metaverse” was coined in 1993, and people began using personal avatars to explore Second Life, the first created metaverse, in 2003. 

Development of VR and AR technology accelerated in the following decades, but it took the Covid-19 pandemic for acceptance of virtual experiences to start catching up in the mainstream and business worlds.

“We had a surge of virtual during Covid, when it was the only alternative,” says Thorsen. “It made people accustomed to having video on, and [tools like Zoom are] now the default over the phone. If I want to show you something, I can do that. If there’s even the hint of creativity, this is the way to do that.”

Some demand for virtual meetings is coming from the client side. Thorsen recalled a recent conversation with a major pharmaceutical company that’s rapidly abandoning in-person sales calls with virtual ones based on feedback from doctors, for example. 

Another driver is generational, says Ballin, which is investing in research and development of virtual meeting technology. “As today’s youth move into leadership positions and have immersion into digital environments and gaming, [the shift to metaverse meetings] will happen,” he says.

“The stage is set for the next generation to come out and advocate for this,” says Thorsen, noting that Twitch – a live-streaming platform for gaming and other activities in the metaverse, including tutorials, social interaction, and software development – has more than 45 million daily users, a substantial majority under the age 45.

“The profile of the person who owns meetings and events in the company will have to change. That person will need to be able to understand these new technologies, not just be a travel agent”

Johnny Thorsen

“HR is keeping an eye on VR because hiring tech talent means keeping them satisfied at work, and VR is part of that,” says Budrys. “It makes a workplace more attractive for millennials and younger workers. VR will be used more and more for work, and companies that are investing in it now will have quite the benefit for adopting the technology early.”

The rising utilisation of the metaverse will also impact the kinds of people that companies hire in their travel department, says Thorsen. “The profile of the person who owns meetings and events in the company will have to change,” he says. “That person will need to be able to understand these new technologies, not just be a travel agent.”

Heading into resistance?

Significant barriers to widespread adoption of VR and AR remain in the business travel world and across the corporate hierarchy. Ballin says such “failure points” including age, familiarity with technology in general, and the limitations of the technology itself. 

“There’s a lot of buzz over the metaverse, but not a lot of people have tried it,” says Budrys. MeetinVR advises new corporate clients to ease into adoption, starting with small group meetings in departments that tend to have employees who are more comfortable with technology and have a stronger business case for adopting VR and AR, such as IT, R&D and HR. 

“Choose a specific team that does team meetings on a regular basis,” says Budrys. “Then when you’re comfortable, do a proof of concept. If that’s successful, greenlight broader use in other business units that are less tech-savvy.”

Extensive onboarding is part of MeetinVR’s services, largely necessitated by reliance on VR headsets. “If you give a headset to a nine-year-old, they will figure it out on their own,” says Budrys, but the learning curve is steeper for older users. 

The immersive environment enabled by headsets like the Meta Quest Pro and Pico 4 work best for the types of collaborative small group meetings, workshops, VIP events, and board meetings facilitated by MeetinVR – “things where stakeholders used to fly into a hotel for a few days,” notes Budrys.

Headsets are powerful tools – “a small computer on your face” is how Budrys describes them. 

“If we are both neurosurgeons, there’s the ability for us to put on headsets and look at someone’s brain together,” says Ballin. “That’s powerful, meaningful and makes sense.”

Operating in an immersive environment can also be fun in a way that can facilitate closer connections among team members, says Budrys. “You might think senior managers are serious people, but put a headset on them and they start goofing around,” he says. “Because it’s not you but ‘virtual you,’ it demolishes boundaries and helps build friendships – you can be looser than in real life.”

Part of the reason that companies like MeetinVR tend to focus on smaller groups, however, is that the fully immersive environments facilitated by headsets require significant bandwidth. Headsets also have limited battery life, and newer users, in particular, tend to be limited in how long they can comfortably remain in a headset-enabled digital environment.

“We had VR back in 2017, but usage was very low: nobody wanted to wear goggles for more than two minutes,” according to Lipshitz. Budrys advises clients to cap meetings at no more than an hour, interspersed with breaks.

Not all metaverse meetings and events require VR goggles, however. Meetaverse participants need only a web browser and a mouse or trackpad to navigate and interact in a created environment, which enables companies to scale events for far greater numbers of attendees. “It’s an environment for the tech we have now,” according to Lipshitz.

As for the future of VR and AR enabled meetings, “the key will be the spread of technology and bandwidth,” says Ballin. Budrys says it “will be some time before we have holograms,” but on the near horizon are devices that provide the functionality of VR headsets but are the size and shape of eyeglasses, facilitating navigation of environments that blend the physical and digital worlds – a “phygital” landscape, as Lipshitz calls it. 

“We are seeing a transition from VR to mixed reality, with some 3D elements and some real,” says Budrys.

“Hotels can provide a guaranteed high-speed WiFi environment and project you into a virtual conference room,” says Thorsen. “The question is, how do we communicate when you’re in the room and I’m not? The headsets need to go, which will happen in the next three to five years. Once we have VR glasses in consumer life it will easily move into corporate life.”