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In A World…

By April 17, 2018Features

As virtual reality becomes increasingly popular and Ready Player One storms the box office, H&E North asks, will virtual meetings replace face-to-face meetings?

We can’t predict the future and by using the supposed technology of tomorrow we can often feel like we’re stepping into the unknown. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have become buzzwords in the MICE industry, but as companies race to discover how this new technology can make meetings more effective and worthwhile, will VR and AR change the nature of meetings?

Doing business with international partners and clients at speed is increasingly the norm, so the use of VR and AR in meetings offers the exciting opportunity to do faster deals and make quicker connections, leaving the staid world of emails and conference calls behind. Furthermore, as travel costs increase, the benefits of VR meetings mean that companies can make sure that deals can still go ahead and not be at the mercy of airline cancellations and train delays.

In areas such as architecture, construction and engineering, the best and most accurate information is presented in 3D, with CAD models or even physical scale models giving the best impression of the final product or particular design. In today’s world where colleagues can be continents apart, the subtleties of certain information can be hard to convey using a flat monitor screen and a voice on a telephone or Skype connection. The same can also be said for event planners who may wish to understand the potential of a venue or highlight the benefits of a particular location.

This is where VR comes in. It might be a little controversial to suggest that face-to-face meetings could be a thing of the past, but the reality is (excuse the pun), VR is already being embraced. We already have a number of available platforms, including the HTC VIVE, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift and it isn’t that far-fetched to assume that tech-obsessed businesses will soon want to make sure their employees are loaded up with the right equipment to make use of the trend and appear ahead of the curve. In terms of AR, Google Glass is still being held up as an example of how AR didn’t work in the real world, but other examples such as Pokémon Go is solid proof of how just how quickly people can incorporate the technology into their daily lives.

At the last UK Events Week, Joss Davidge, Innovations Director at BEcause Experiential Marketing, which helps brands achieve their marketing ambitions through virtual experiences, invited marketing and events professionals to discuss how VR is being used to achieve event objectives. Joss reported: “Today, more than 50% of the briefs we receive as an agency ask for a VR element, so this is an area that’s only going to keep growing. The capabilities and possibilities of VR for experiential marketing are limitless.”

But as Dr Lucy Laville, Course Director for UK Centre for Events Management at Leeds Beckett University explains, moving to VR altogether removes some of the active benefits of physically attending: “One of the main motives for attending such events is to provide an experience, be it networking, escaping the office, a sense of belonging or a shared experience. These experiences may be less effective and authentic through VR due to a lack of face-to-face contact and emotional engagement, which can lead to ineffective interactions and misinterpretations that may be detrimental to delegate motivations.” The combination of mixed reality (using both VR and face-to-face experiences) is a likely alternative, Lucy concludes: “The current trend towards ‘hybrid reality’ that includes VR as well as face-to-face, physical attendance allows for a range of interactions to take place, so that delegates can select how to attend based on individual motives. This multi-dimensional approach to meetings and conferences offers a more flexible approach accessibility and participation in a competitive environment, as organisers strive to meet ever-evolving consumer demand.”

For venues, VR offers a unique opportunity to let event organisers the chance to view venues with even just a smartphone. Macdonald Hotels & Resorts has become one of the first hotel and hospitality chains in the UK to use technology to allow guests to explore its hotels via 360-degree online tours. In all the tours information hotspots appear on screen allow for direct booking of rooms and restaurant tables, while the inclusion of floorplans gives conference organisers a unique tool for planning seminars, arranging accommodation for guests, locating break-out sessions and hospitality. Using high resolution photography and infrared technologies, guests can now click to walk through the front door, explore the lobby, bars and restaurants, see the full range of bedrooms and even take a stroll in the grounds.

“It can be difficult to fully appreciate the opulence and comfort levels of a hotel without actually visiting in person and it can be hard to stand out in a very competitive marketplace,” stresses Keith McMahon, Managing Director of Venue View, the nationwide service specialising in virtual tours for the hospitality sector, “By using tech such as VR to enhance the online customer experience, this significantly benefits conference business by providing real world views of available meeting spaces and increases bookings by travellers opting to book direct. Hotels and venues need to be switched on to the opportunity provided by VR, the world’s fastest growing technology – and not get left behind.”

That ‘real world view’ experience also has the potential to have a positive impact on the environment too. For employees and companies that are looking to adapt to virtual meetings, benefits include having all the documents you need with you at all times, with no worry that you forgot to transfer files to a USB stick or other portable devices before you leave for your flight or train to meet a client. Saving on travel time, security issues and figuring out portable technology while on the move could prove invaluable for those who would prefer to stay in the office.

For some, the worry about VR is the potential loss of worthwhile human interaction, but unlike video conferencing, already a popular channel of communication for businesses, eye contact and non-verbal cues can be experienced. Even if you are not physically face-to-face, VR goes some way to recreate that sensation, meaning that meeting people can, well, keep on meeting people.