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Metaverse: tourism of the future or pure utopia?

Metavers, a word that has been on everyone's lips lately and that has no doubt not finished making news. While Facebook became Meta a short time ago, a wave of infatuation for this new universe seems to be emerging in various sectors of activity. From the world of art to the world of haute-couture and of course tourism, an industry that is always on the lookout for the latest trends. Can we talk about a real evolution to which all the actors in the sector will adhere in the end, or is it just a fashion effect?

New ways to travel

Since the popularisation of tourism in the 1970s, the world has changed, as have attitudes. Innovation after innovation, professionals in the sector have never ceased to develop their products in order to better respond to the new expectations of customers. The emergence of digital technology has enabled the tourism industry to undergo a metamorphosis over the years with OTAs, chatbots, and more recently virtual and augmented reality. What place then for this newcomer, the metaverse, in the world of travel?

According to Vanguelis Panayotis, CEO of MKG Consulting, new technologies such as the metaverse "are in fact real opportunities to discover territories and experiences, especially when the customer is in the fantasy of his trip". With this in mind, the seaside resort of Benidorm has decided to invest in metavers by launching BenidormLand. This new metaverse, available on the Steam gaming platform, allows users to discover the destination and seduce the Alpha and Z generations. It is a sort of showcase of the destination that allows users to walk the streets and even, in the future, explore its theme parks, hotels, restaurants and other sites of interest. 

The explosion of information and communication technologies with the emergence of many new technological platforms, such as the metaverse, is forcing destinations and tourism businesses to constantly innovate to keep up with these new trends. We are proud that VisitBenidorm is the first to dive in! 

Leire Bilbao, Manager of the VisitBenidorm Foundation

This new tool makes it possible to envisage a hybridisation of tourist experiences and also to visit places that are sometimes inaccessible today. With technological advances, it is now possible to discover sites that no longer exist or to see what the ruins of a site looked like when it was built. The possibilities are endless and open up a new field of possibilities for the tourism sector where only imagination and technology are the limits. According to Vanguelis Panayotis, "we can envisage equipment that allows us to go where we have not planned to go. For example, plan a trip to the Red Sea or a cruise on the Nile and visit the pyramids in virtual reality, with sensory sensors for sounds and smells.

More than just travellers, tourists who enter the metaverse become protagonists of the landscape and have the real sensation of being part of it and, above all, of having control over it. A highly immersive experience that offers a new way to travel and discover a place. Fermín Carmona, CEO and co-founder of Hotelverse, believes that destinations will be "the first to develop their presence in the metaverse so that the user can move around in it before travelling and thus be able to live the experience beforehand". Being present in the metaverse for destinations would then become an element of differentiation and competitiveness with regard to other destinations that do not dare to take the virtual step.

The metaverse could also help to improve the customer experience even before the trip begins. Tourists would be able to preview their places of stay and see, for example, in real time how long it would take to get from the airport/station to their accommodation.

Moreover, airlines are already beginning to invest in this new universe, such as Qatar Airways, which recently launched QVerse. A virtual reality experience allowing customers to virtually visit the premium check-in area at Hamad International Airport (HIA) as well as the interior of the airline's aircraft cabin. The airline has also introduced a meta-human cabin crew offering a digital interactive customer experience. For its part, Vueling will soon offer its customers the possibility to view and book their tickets in the metaverse by partnering with Next Earth, the 3rd largest metaverse platform with 230,000 users. Vueling is going even further by teaming up with lomob, a shared mobility platform that is in charge of creating a specific application for the airline that, in addition to flights, will offer last-mile transport services. 

The aim is to take advantage of technology and virtual environments, such as the metaverse, to offer an ever richer, simpler and more personalised experience to our customers when planning their trips.

Jesús Monzó, Director of Distribution Strategy and Alliances at Vueling

Travel agencies are also taking advantage of this digital revolution, such as Monagence.com, which is pioneering the use of augmented reality via a specially designed application. Customers will be able to open a virtual door from their home and be transported to their future dream destination. While this solution offers an immersive experience prior to the trip to prepare for it, it also helps avoid unpleasant surprises. Customers will also have the opportunity to talk to people on the spot and book the trip directly via the application. A real revolution in the world of distribution.

Reinventing hospitality experiences

The metaverse has the advantage of redefining the customer experience well in advance of the stay. It is sometimes difficult to choose a hotel based solely on the photos visible on an online booking site, but being able to visit the hotel from home would be a real advantage for both customers and hotel operators. There are many other benefits to developing a hotel in the metaverse, which is why more and more hotels are taking the plunge and embarking on this new adventure. By improving the customer experience, hotel operators will logically see their turnover increase.

The possibilities are endless, as the metaverse is still a world in the process of being structured, with few or no limits, unlike the physical world in which we live. A fully digital world allows for completely new experiences and therefore additional income for hotel owners. Attending a concert in your own hotel room, hosting a party with thousands of guests from all over the world at a resort or visiting one of the world's most prestigious palaces are all concrete examples of what the metaverse could make possible in the years to come.

citizenM becomes the first hotel operator to secure a piece of land in the metaverse, specifically in The Sandbox, for the purpose of building a hotel thereafter. The collaboration between citizenM and The Sandbox will result in digital land purchases by customers, which will then be used to fund the construction of a hotel in the virtual world through the sale of NFT, which is associated with real-world rewards. The rewards will take the form of discounts or free drinks, and will be redeemable at any hotel in citizenM's real-world portfolio. Once the virtual hotel is built, the brand will work with new digital artists to create and sell NFTs that can be purchased in the metaverse. 

At the moment, it's a learning phase to understand what a customer-centric experience can look like in an increasingly digital world. But we believe that this experience can live alongside what we do in the real world, not in competition with it. It can allow us to interact with our audience as much as we do in the real world. 

Explains a spokesperson for citizenM

The hotel operator RIU Hotels and Resorts is following suit by opening the Riu Plaza España hotel in the AltSpaceVR metaverse in late June 2022. The property wants to offer its guests new experiences, not only in the real world, but also in the virtual world. The entire hotel can be visited virtually, from the decorated lobby to the roof terrace with its glass balcony, all with playful components. To develop this new project, RIU joined forces with La Agencia Encubierta. A collaboration that has allowed the virtual Riu Plaza España hotel to incorporate new construction elements, as well as real components. 

In terms of development, user experience and interaction possibilities, the Riu Plaza España proposal on AltSpace is unique. The hybridization of the real image and digital design, combined with the possibility to visit and book a suite, is quite innovative. 

José Olivares and Jurro Pizarro, Chief Strategy Officer and CEO of La Agencia Encubierta

Global groups such as Marriott International and Meliá Hotels International have also announced their ambitions to enter this new world. While the Marriott Auditorium hotel in Madrid has already entered the metaverse, Meliá is more evasive, explaining that it is currently working on projects that incorporate the metaverse. Its CEO, Gabriel Escarrer, emphasises that the metaverse "can be a way of making itself known to new audiences, offering visibility to destinations and products through new user experiences".

Decentraland also seems to be attracting several actors in the hospitality sector, as evidenced by the organisation of a 24-hour virtual party in the metaverse by Capitaland, the management company of Ascott, or the opening of the M Social lifestyle hotel by Millennium Hotels and Resorts. Guests entering the M Social Decentraland can interact with an avatar that greets visitors in the lobby. The avatar guides each guest through the hotel, and those who reach the top will be entered into a draw to win real hotel operator experiences. Millennium plans to begin discussions on future collaborations within the metaverse. Future integrations with the hotel include a link to the M Social website and special events. 

M Social means being different, being unique. As we look to the future, we need to move beyond the traditional hospitality model and engage our guests through new immersive experiences. We hope to redefine hospitality through M Social Decentraland by creating online adventures that integrate with real-life events.

Kwek Leng Beng, Executive Chairman of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels Limited

According to Melchor Sanchez, CEO and co-founder of Hotelverse, a company that aims to revolutionise hotel booking by creating duplicates of properties in the metaverse, "Chains are entering the metaverse so they don't get left behind, but "it can't be their business model, based on renting out space and the metaverse is the elimination of physical space. It can be an add-on, an attraction to the hotel or destination offering, so that the traveller goes into their travel agency, puts on a pair of glasses and can get a glimpse of the immersive experience in that area."

Regarding independent hotel operators, Melchor Sanchez believes that they "are more agile and the investment needed to be in the metaverse is less expensive than changing the mattresses or the wifi in the property". However, he says "they are not going to be proactive in this area, but will enter later, when they see there is a return. They will join en masse when it brings them value, and it won't be in the relationship with the customer, but in the improvement of revenue, profitability or cost reduction, so they will decide to make a qualitative leap and enter this field.

More connected business trips

While the metaverse seems to be a very interesting area of work for leisure tourism, it also seems to be of increasing interest to the business travel sector. Indeed, the health crisis has had a profound effect on this sector and has changed the way in which business trips are made. While long journeys by train or plane used to be the order of the day, things have changed somewhat today. With travel restrictions in place for many months, virtual meetings have become commonplace and although the bulk of the pandemic seems to be behind us, digital technology is still very much in the spotlight.

Many companies are imagining the future of business travel in the metaverse today. Like Mytaverse, a Miami-based company, which recently created a 3D platform where business people can create their own avatars and organise meetings, events, showrooms and training sessions in a virtual space. It can present these environments in a web-based world, without users having to wear virtual reality or augmented reality equipment. Mytaverse offers a variety of pre-built 3D environments, currently 25, or fully customised.

The idea is to make jet lag, airport security checks and other inconveniences disappear, without people having to invest heavily in expensive headsets or computers. The platform has already been used to power major events and is being piloted by companies such as PepsiCo, Dassault Corporation, Tekni-Plex and Zaha Hadid Architects. Mytaverse served as the 3D digital event platform for the Asia Sky Group Virtual Event 2021 conference. 

Thanks to COVID, we were forced to rethink what the world needed. And that's how we came up with an immersive world for business. Our ambition is to be a corporate metaverse. [...] What inspired us originally was to do these immersive experiences in real life, where we were doing shows for the corporate world where we had these huge installations with projectors and interactive screens and things like that. But with COVID, that was no longer possible. So we were looking for a way to replicate that same experience, but in a virtual environment where people can do it remotely. So we started to explore that possibility. 

Kenneth Landau, CEO of Mytaverse

Again the customer experience will be greatly enhanced by this technology, with for example the possibility of interacting with a hologram booking agent who will take all the necessary details for the booking. He or she will know from previous bookings the seating preferences, dietary requirements for on-board dining and even the recommended light and dark periods to avoid jet lag once you arrive. It would also be possible to visit, or even try out, an aircraft's business class before boarding.

Meta, formerly Facebook, explains that the metaverse was a way to offer experiences not possible in the real world and for business travel actors to facilitate the organisation of meetings or events. According to the company, tomorrow's world of work will be entirely hybrid, with the underlying trends we see today continuing over time. Business travel and event organisation will change in the coming years, with digital technology providing a real opportunity to create new ways of interacting and meeting. The metaverse is also revolutionising training, and Hilton has recently trained its teams through the metaverse. According to Gilles Maillet, Director of Travel, Automotive & Mobility at Meta, "properties are going to become real workplaces and professionals will have to be able to offer augmented experiences to bring business travellers into their homes".

The solution for a more virtuous tourism?

Tourism in the metaverse could have a social dimension since it would allow people from the working classes who do not necessarily have the resources to afford travel to discover distant destinations. Indeed, thanks to the metaverse, the sometimes exorbitant costs of transport or overnight stays in tourist accommodation are a thing of the past. Tourists of the future could travel without having to leave their homes, thus saving precious time and money for a certain percentage of the population. A more inclusive tourism could thus be born with the development of virtual tourism.

This same tourism could also help the industry to become more sustainable. The air sector is daily singled out for its impact on the environment, producing almost 3% of the world's CO2 emissions, so removing, or at least reducing, this component would drastically reduce the ecological impact of a trip. Favouring immersion in virtual worlds instead of having to resort to air travel would thus be an adequate solution to enable the long-awaited decarbonisation of the tourism sector.

Overtourism is an equally topical issue in the sector, with many destinations implementing actions to combat this growing phenomenon. Although initiatives are being taken all over the world, from Marseille to Venice to Thailand, they could become less effective as time goes by and the world's population continues to grow. Virtual tourism is once again emerging as an alternative solution to this problem, helping to relieve the overcrowding of sites. If this overload of visitors in specific places annoys both locals and tourists themselves, this phenomenon represents a real danger for the site itself, especially if it is a natural site with a fragile ecosystem. The metaverse would therefore make it possible to relieve a large number of very popular sites in the world while offering a much more pleasant customer experience to virtual tourists.

The company Wild Immersion is pushing the envelope even further by launching a project whose objective is to raise awareness of biodiversity issues. It intends to develop an edutainment approach via an immersive experience in the metaverse by capitalising on its catalogue of over 160 animals filmed in 360° on all continents. The business model will be based on subscriptions and the purchase of "skins" but the real aim is to get users to make donations to support nature conservation associations. Programs to save animals or to buy land to rewild areas will be promoted on the Wild Angels island and via the game mechanics. For example, by financially supporting an association, players could win special "skins".

Professionals still reluctant

While these numerous examples clearly demonstrate the contribution that the metaverse could make to the tourism industry, many actors in the sector express doubts, even fears. Indeed, a certain number of them are concerned by the fact that virtual tourism in the metaverse is replacing that in the real world. They should be reassured that this is not the case according to Naïma Aïdi, a doctoral student in information and communication sciences specialising in tourism, who states that "the tourist experience is very much linked to hedonism, pleasure, the sensation of discovering new things and wonder. The meta-verse could arouse a desire to travel but it cannot replace a fully-fledged experience".

Virtual tourism should not necessarily be seen as a competitor to "physical tourism" but rather as an additional, or even complementary, element. The advantage of digital tourism lies in the fact that it offers experiences that would not be possible in reality, such as diving near the Great Barrier Reef or climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower. However, in no way will the metaverse replace real travel. The current booking rates show that people want to go on holiday again.

Furthermore, a 3D and augmented reality world in which people could participate and explore by teleporting instantly and ultimately an alternative to traditional holidays is still some time away. According to Fermín Carmona, CEO of Hotelverse, "we are still in a very embryonic phase of its evolution, far from what could be done because there are still obstacles to overcome, such as the development of hardware and software to deploy its full potential. Although our time is witnessing a lot of new and innovative technologies, the metaverse described throughout this article is still a few years, if not decades, away.

As many experts in the technology sector explain, there are still many challenges to be overcome before we reach this famous immersive world accessible to all. According to Fermín Carmona, "the metaverse will not be massively adopted until it becomes commonplace. Mankind is undoubtedly moving in this direction, although for the time being we need to land this technology that already exists, with many limiting factors, of course, and derive it into a monetisable value proposition that enhances the consumer experience on the basis of hyper-personalisation".

 

In view of all these examples, the metaverse is, on the whole, a logical evolution of our current technology. In particular, it responds to new expectations on the part of customers, namely to have more immersive but also more customisable experiences. Although we are still in the early stages of this new world(s), its development should happen relatively quickly given the technological advances we are currently witnessing. Tourism professionals should therefore take a close interest in this innovation so as not to miss the boat, as the metaverse may well transform the tourism landscape in the long term.

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