Friend or foe: what does the ‘metaverse’ mean for travel?

Posted 04/11/2021 by Matthew Chapman

As the last 18 months have shown, the future of travel is not what it used to be. Now with the arrival of the ‘metaverse’ – a 3D, augmented-reality, version 2.0 of the internet heralded by Facebook – could the future of travel be about to change again?

 

Leaving aside the existential risk that people might stop travelling in the real world – a bit like when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character tries to do a ‘memory implant’ holiday in Total Recall – this still throws up all sorts of challenges for travel.

 

Should we be claiming ‘real estate’ in the metaverse like we acquired dot com addresses in the 2000s? Already a plot of land in Decentraland, one of the more popular metaverse environments, sold for $572,000 in April. And which metaverse should we invest in: the Facebook one, Decentraland, or some other version? It’s Betamax Vs VHS all over again. Equally who in your company should be leading this, technology or marketing?

 

There’s a lot of confusion, mystery and downright hype about the metaverse for sure. But without wishing to get all Donald Rumsfeld, we could perhaps separate out the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

 

What can we definitively say about this right now? Even by Facebook’s own definition any kind of advanced metaverse – a 3D ‘embodied internet’ in which people can have a persistent ‘presence’ and teleport to different places – is many years off. Not least as 3D glasses aren’t anywhere near everyday usable.

 

Nonetheless we shouldn’t overlook that to a significant extent the metaverse is already upon us. Think virtual reality video gaming, crypto currencies, immersive online shopping experiences.

 

In travel you don’t need to think of the minority interest virtual tour businesses or those accepting crypto payments (growing in number, by the way). Just think about how we navigate the streets of a new destination using satnav on our smart phones or vicariously live the holiday experiences of others via social media.

 

In other words, we’re living in the future already. So what is it that we don’t yet know but need to think about for travel?

 

Perhaps the most obvious use for this could be inspirational. Anything that allows travellers to experience a hotel or destination whilst considering a purchase has huge potential. Imagine allowing someone to see the room, or even test the bedsheets in advance.

Next up would be the booking experience and within that we shouldn’t overlook payments. Again, there is huge potential for an immersive experience that replicates the old-fashioned high street travel agent we all loved. People could ask questions, combine products, pay in a more convenient way or even negotiate a better deal – all whilst feeling they are in a familiar and safe environment.

An extension of this could be the customer service and operations side of things. Even someone on a ‘real’ holiday might still want to plunge into the metaverse to resolve a customer service issue, order food for their room, be upsold some in-destination experiences, or ‘see the manager’.

One other very important implication for travel businesses will be how the metaverse changes the experience of employees. If staff really could gather in the metaverse not just for meetings, but to conduct real world activities like preparing food (via a robot) or guiding travellers round a museum (as a hologram), then we could employ someone in New Zealand to run a hotel in New York.

In other words, there is huge potential upside for travel businesses to gain an edge over competitors, temporarily at least. Miss that at your peril, as soon enough that edge will become a basic hygiene factor.

And finally, what are the ‘unknown unknowns’? To give us an idea how off-the-mark we could all be, just think back to predictions people were making about the internet back in the late 1990s vs what really happened.

The most obvious question is whether or not any of this will ever actually replace the need or desire to travel in the real world. Just a thought though, the transition to working virtually has been much more accelerated than anyone could ever imagine because of COVID.

Can you imagine how an environmental catastrophe would affect our ability to travel and subsequent desire for metaverse experiences?

If we really have to highlight a risk though it would be this: unlike the internet boom, already the players that will influence this almost certainly exist, namely Google, Apple and Facebook. Is them having an even greater hold over travellers a good thing for our industry? Anyone who thinks the answer to that is yes is clearly already living in another reality.

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