On April 23 and 24, more than 40 meeting professionals attended a two-day convention without leaving their desks. They logged onto Second Life and created virtual versions of themselves (avatars); danced and watched fireworks; enjoyed comedy and live music concerts; attended educational seminars about greener meetings, global innovation, international law, intellectual property and emergent technologies; and networked with peers from all over North America. From the expo floor, they were able to watch streaming video about the presenters, surf sponsor Web sites and buy merchandise. If they got lost in-between sessions, they were “teleported” to the correct room. If a presenter’s screen went down, it was replaced in a matter of seconds. Rooms were reconfigured with a mouse click. The convention planners never had to worry about F&B, transportation, hotel rooms, carbon footprints or attrition.
Welcome to Virtualis, the world’s largest virtual convention and learning center, created by more than 200 people based around the world, under the guidance of Dan Parks, president and creative director of Corporate Planners Unlimited Inc., a California-based meeting, event and corporate travel planning company.
“The build itself is the biggest testament to what can be achieved in this collaborative environment,” Parks says. “The man who did the landscaping came from Australia, the person who helped with the convention design is from Shanghai and lives in San Francisco, the lady who helped with the tour pod is from Berlin, a man from Denmark built the 3-D diorama of the convention center — and none of us have ever seen each other.”
Gloria Nelson, chief experience officer of Wisconsin-based Gloria Nelson Event Design, acted as a project manager for Parks during Virtualis’ construction and helped design the room set-ups. “We acted as a tag-team, so if he couldn’t be in-world, I acted as his voice with people. I talked to him about what he envisioned, and then we made it happen.” Nelson says designing the look of virtual rooms wasn’t much different than the event design work she does in real life. She used images of chair covers, centerpieces, colors, linens and event set-ups from her company’s online gallery to convey what Parks envisioned to the technical design team, who used the visual information to design prims — virtual building blocks that create 3-D images in Second Life.
“When we put an image in, we put a script in with it that reads its location like GPS does; it reads where items are located,” Nelson explains. “We put all those items in a box. Then, on the control panel, you can go ‘poof’ and remove every single item at the same time and do a room set. Don’t you wish you could reset a room with the push of a button in real life?”
Scripts also define how objects behave: whether or not a chair rotates or floats, what Web site a virtual business card can direct people to, and how long it will take an avatar to finish a virtual cocktail. In Virtualis, planners have hundreds of settings to choose from, including a dance floor overlooking an ocean, a luxury yacht, a classroom where attendees hover over a city skyline, a comedy club and an elegant banquet hall. Planners can create virtual team-building programs or order customized avatars so attendees logging on teleport directly to the event without having to set-up accounts beforehand. Real musicians can be hired to play during virtual receptions. Even virtual swag bags are available.
“I wasn’t going to be a part of anything that took any jobs away from planners,” Parks explains. “These other virtual worlds — and I’ve been to all of them — there’s nothing there for a planner to do. They’re very flat, very two-dimensional. The planner is the most important person [here]; they are going to tell us the settings, sponsor logos — we do everything based on what the planner wants and customize everything according to what the planner wants.”
Nelson sees many benefits to meeting virtually, chief among them the ability to gather people together who are in different locations without requiring them to travel. “I belong to two professional association; on a quarterly basis they meet. What if they were to virtually gather? They would save money, time and reduce the carbon imprint. You could diminish the loss of productivity due to travel, save on F&B, and when planners are dealing with Sarbanes-Oxley, it’s a real cost savings to them.” The streaming video, live audio and PowerPoint technology present in Second Life also allow events to happen simultaneously in Virtualis and real time, which could help planners increase attendance and expose sponsors and a company’s message to a wider audience.
Attending such an event is what gave Parks, who already had built a Second Life mansion/networking space for meeting planners (MeCo Mansion), the inspiration to build Virtualis. “Cisco has multiple islands in Second Life and many different auditoriums that they use for presentations and product launches. I was [in their virtual theater] watching streaming video of the CEO or chairman of Cisco talking live from a real meeting they were having somewhere else. At the same time, somebody from the Second Life audience was streaming what they were [seeing] to YouTube. Then, the CEO walked off the [real] stage, his avatar walked on to the stage in Second Life and began speaking, and they streamed that [Second Life] video live to the audience sitting in the real meeting. I remember sitting there and thinking: There you go; there’s a simple solution right there.”
Parks insists meeting virtually will never fully replace face-to-face meetings. Instead, meeting in Second Life is likely to replace Webinars and current virtual tradeshow platforms, which one attendee insists “are as flat as Twiggy’s chest” in comparison to the visual richness and social interaction Virtualis and Second Life offer. Microphone headsets allow attendees to chat amongst themselves, and respond to presenters and educators in real time. Those without headsets communicate by typing questions and responses, which everyone can see. A private chat function allows two or more attendees to communicate without disturbing other attendees, making it possible for planners to create breakout sessions where sound carry-over is not an issue. Camera controls allow attendees to view rooms from different angles, eliminating obstructed views.
Response from Virtualis’ first attendees and presenters was enthusiastic. Patti Shock, professor and chair of the Tourism and Convention Administration Department in the Hotel College at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Parks, “I’ve been promised for 30 years that we’d be seeing a virtual tradeshow, and it wasn’t till now that I have.”
Presenter Jim Carroll, a trends and innovations expert, did his session from home, with his 13- and 15-year-old sons by his side. “They were mesmerized,” he laughs. “My whole theory is that there needs to be more meetings and events conferences to deliver knowledge faster. I talk to clients about how fast the market is changing. If we have to train a sales team on a new product or come up with an emergency marketing strategy, now we have a choice: We either fly them to some airport hotel to talk or just talk to them online. I’m thinking 10 years out, this will be one of the main ways in which [people] gain knowledge.”
Parks says he was prepared for people to call him nuts for building a virtual convention center. Not many have. In the weeks leading up to the inaugural event, Parks gave upwards of 150 tours to meeting planners, potential clients and members of the media. And business is beginning to trickle in.
Parks says Meeting Professionals International President and CEO Bruce MacMillan told him, “You know, this will start to work as soon as companies start putting into their RFPs, ‘Do you have experience in virtual meeting planning, in planning meetings in a virtual world?'” To encourage usage, Parks has created a pricing structure with all-inclusive rates, ranging from $250 for a four-hour breakout session to $750 for an eight-hour ballroom event for 100 people. “This has been a grand experiment that has grown legs,” Parks says. “Everyone comes in and says ‘Wow’ and goes back to their chairmen. Everyone has to come in and see it with their own eyes [because] it’s difficult to explain.
“When I started, I thought I was way ahead of the curve,” Parks laughs. “I think I’m barely ahead of the curve now. It will not surprise me if by this time next year, we’re talking about Third Life or Fourth Life.”