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Hospitality and the Metaverse | #PurposeMonth

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For the last twelve years, Matter Of Form have had the privilege to deliver exceptional brand and digital experiences to some of the very best luxury brands in the global travel and hospitality sector. And we have got to know the dedicated tribe who dedicate their lives and careers to this industry. 

And how do they feel about the Metaverse? I was struck by this quote by Erik Muñoz (CCO at Lybra.tech) as it so perfectly describes how - I suspect - many passionate hoteliers or travel industry veterans feel about the ‘virtual’ in the context of the ‘real’:

“The hospitality industry is a precious business sector that enriches lives through the visceral joy of travel, food, wine and culture. We already have planet earth in our universe and it is more amazing than we could ever experience fully.” 

Travel is of course a real world experience - journeys of exploration and self-discovery that are liberating for the soul and where we are often liberated from the technology and device-led experiences that so dominate our lives.

These people see the cultural picture but also care deeply about the angle of the teaspoon - the state of designing a ‘perfect moment’ for guests is very different to the messy, iterative nature of technology.

It’s not churn and burn like retail, or flogging campaigns in Virtual Reality. We have five senses of taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight. Surely anything virtual is the antithesis of travel and only covers hearing and sight - nothing more?

The general scepticism of the industry around the Metaverse is perfectly exemplified in this wonderful “Inspired by Iceland” parody: 

What is the Metaverse?

Talk of the Metaverse is everywhere in 2022. The metaverse is defined as a simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create spaces for rich user interaction mimicking the real world.

This paves the way for a new internet experience and new business models. While we are in the early stages of its evolution, it has certainly caught the attention of many businesses, as it will transform many areas of our life including shopping, entertainment, education and even the way we work.

And it’s big. You only need to look at blockchain and cryptocurrencies, games like Fornite, worlds like Decentraland and communities like Discord. They all have millions and millions of people interacting. And the concept is nothing new - it came about in 1992 when science fiction author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his novel Snow Crash, in which he imagined a 3D virtual world where people, represented by avatars, could interact with each other and AI agents.

The Metaverse is not a literal space or one thing. It’s a swathe of adjacent and complementary technologies and behaviours reaching a level of maturity at broadly the same time. Just as there was no one defining moment of the industrial revolution or the internet, no one really knows what the metaverse will look like or the impact it will have in 10 years time.

It’s like being in the 1990s and predicting the impact of the internet and the full vision of the metaverse is decades away. It requires extraordinary technical advancement and regulatory involvement too for it to become part of our day-to-day. However, as it continues to develop it will be a revolutionary quasi-successor to the mobile internet. Moreover blockchain technology is expected to play a major role in building the metaverse, because it allows verifiable claim of ownership and, in theory, could support the movement of digital assets between different virtual spaces.

The Metaverse is a network that connects everyone and offers them the following capabilities:-

  • Accessing or experiencing content.
  • Establishing one or more identities that represent the self (such as avatars).
  • Communicating asynchronously or in real-time by a variety of methods, including text, voice, and gestures.
  • Creating and publishing 3D, spatial and related content and experiences in a variety of forms.
  • Affecting our surrounding virtual environment, as appropriate, given sufficient permissions by the owner.
  • Engaging in business and commerce for access, personal identity, social connection, data storage, content creation, content distribution, and payments.

Facebook/Meta have brought this to life in the context of education and help us visualise the impact the metaverse will undoubtedly have:

What is actually next?

Currently the industry is struggling through the ‘now’ of technology challenges. This is partly a digital booking experience dominated by a website; whether your own website or that of an OTA.

Then the technology landscape in general is full of systems that sort of speak to each other, and then there are advances in the tech that serves digital marketing, guest experience and revenue optimisation. Social is ubiquitous and finally,15 years after the release of the iPhone, mobile is being used to something like its full potential in hospitality.

And then there is the immediate ‘next’ which at its essence is advances in AI. AI (artificial intelligence) is nothing new having been commercialised by IBM as early as 1911, and is equally nothing new in the context of hospitality.

It is solving concrete issues plaguing the industry such as labour shortages, improving efficiency and productivity and lastly it is automating pricing and business decision making. There is a big push to automate the more ordinary aspects of the experience so staff can focus their time on delivering out of the ordinary experiences. 

But what about the metaverse? Well firstly to counter the sceptics there really is nothing unreal about the Metaverse. It bridges the real world, social world and virtual world. There’s a generation growing up for whom the metaverse is their reality. It’s unstoppable and NFTs and crypto are already changing the landscape. 

To pick up on NFTs and whether they represent value, as many people doubt. In medieval times you could buy a ship with a handful of Nutmeg; a bag of Cloves would get you an estate. They were the ultimate luxury status symbol and society fetishised them.

The market determines value. Scarcity and supply play a part, but story and association define what's worth something and what's not. For us the most fascinating thing about web 3, digital products and crypto, is this re-examination of status and perceived value. ANd NFTs are not just digital art.

They are unique cryptographic tokens that exist on a blockchain and cannot be replicated. So they have huge potential uses and utility. Think property - surely in years to come title deeds will live and be exchanged as an NFT not paper. 

The Metaverse is more for the next generation, than this one. We can feel that something is starting, much of it still in the realms of fantasy. But some elements feel different and the next generation gets it. They already attach value to digital assets.

You would not believe the amount of money the video game Fortnite makes from the sale of virtual clothes and accessories. And some brands need the next generation more than they need this one. Generation Alpha (now aged 10 and under) will be the wealthiest, longest-living and most formally educated generation (IOL, 2019).

This cohort is already shaking up travel and hospitality with its eco-first mindset, digital fluency and adventurous spirit and brands must win their favour now to foster lifelong advocates.

There are a whole lot of get rich quick schemes & the risk of gimmick is high. As mentioned, the full ‘vision’ of the metaverse is decades away. It requires extraordinary advancements (we are far from being able to produce shared, persistent digital experiences that millions of users can ‘do’ in real time).

Being able to walk around a virtual world is nothing new and shouldn’t be treated as such by brands entering the space. In the race to “join the metaverse” (itself a misnomer because the metaverse isn’t actually a thing yet), many brands and businesses are treating this as an opportunity for PR or to create $ quickly due to hype, versus creating experiences with longevity and meaning. 

Value lies in how the metaverse will upgrade, elevate and enrich real life experiences:

It is the idea of correspondence between the real and virtual worlds. It is the idea of technology existing in the real world. It is a bridge between the virtual and the real world. This is done through the language of people, places and things. It can displace space and time.” Alex Kipman, Microsoft (Technical Fellow - AI and Mixed Reality). 

Virtual travel will never replace real life travel. You would be mad to seek a virtual trip to the Maldives over the real thing. But that’s not to say that digital metaverse experiences overlaid with real life moments won’t be revolutionary. 

It is already possible to see some practical applications:-

  • From bookings and service provisions to selling properties, AR/VR and Avatars may replace physical staff or even manage a front office. 
  • You will be able to experience a hotel before booking.
  • Business events will surely become more frequent online and only a select few will take place in person.
  • It is not so ridiculous to think that a new generation will visit destinations virtually.
  • You might virtually shop the hotel room you are staying in.
  • Loyalty will be redefined. NFTs are not mere pieces of art and people are overlooking what these social tokens do and the importance of proven digital ownership.  It’s all about access to real life benefits, maybe to a behind the scenes tour of the hotel or an exclusive members club, a wine tasting night or a virtual immersive experience. To hang out with others at the top of their game. Perhaps you will be able to earn air miles in the metaverse that you can then redeem on a real flight (or vice versa)?

We believe there is a craft and beauty yet to be unlocked for new types of interaction between people with backdrops that defy what's physically possible, that might be here today and gone tomorrow. Imagine every Restaurant or Resort having an in-house meta architect, creating monthly drops where people might convene, creating memories in locations that last only for a month, then expire.

The metaverse is on its way. But it’s not here yet. Its full realisation is at least another decade away. For luxury hospitality brands, this is what is so exciting. There is still time to shape the metaverse’s development in a way that elevates and enriches incredible hospitality experiences.

Our focus is augmenting, not detracting from the beautiful places and experiences you have all created. We innovate without gimmick, we design beautifully, we focus on the core brand to navigate this landscape, and we make technology a friend not an enemy. 

More than anything brands need to think about their so-called “entry into the metaverse” strategically and tactically. The risk of gimmick is rife, with the reputational damage of getting it wrong pretty fear-inducing. Think hard about how metaverse innovation aligns with your overarching brand identity and what the added value is to the end consumer. 

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