The metaverse: the next frontier for hotels?
Last week, Millennium Hotels and Resorts became the first hospitality group to operate a hotel in the metaverse. Hot on their heels is CitizenM, whose plans for a virtual build are also in the works. So what does this mean for the future of hospitality? Flash-in-the-pan trend, or a glimpse into a new way of travelling?
First up – what is the metaverse?
If sustainability was the buzzword of 2021, ‘metaverse’ might be its 2022 successor. And much like the former trend, its meaning is somewhat fuzzy around the edges. Though the term was actually coined in the late ‘80s by an American sci-fi writer, it entered the public lexicon last year with the announcement of Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to take Facebook into a new realm – indeed, changing the company’s name to Meta.
Zuckerberg expressed his vision for a blended online and offline way of life that is more connected:
“We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet, we’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.”
As dystopian as it can seem, it isn’t a huge leap from where we are already at. Insights into Gen-Z culture suggest that the next generation are living ‘virtual first’ lives – the metaverse simply furnishes it with more features that mimic and expand reality. In short, it’s where the digital and physical worlds converge.
How have hotel brands used it so far?
Millennium Hotels and Resorts recently unveiled a new outpost for the group’s M Social brand, M Social Decentraland. So-called after its location on metaverse platform Decentraland, the hotel is manned by an avatar who guides guests through the building, as they play to win offline surprises.
Earlier this year, affordable-luxury hotel group CitizenM also commenced ‘construction’ of a hotel in gaming world The Sandbox. The build will be funded by the sale of NFTs (or ‘non-fungible tokens’ – not that that offers much clarity), which will be linked to rewards or discounts, redeemable at any CitizenM hotel. The group also plans to collaborate with emerging artists for the creation of NFT artworks to adorn the walls, which guests will be able to purchase. The greater vision is for the sale of NFTs to fund a real hotel, with the location voted for collectively by purchasers – a crowdfunding exercise that’s nothing if not creative.
Prior to this, the first major foray into this yet-untested space was by Marriott. In 2021, Marriott enlisted digital artists to create three travel-themed NFT artworks as part of their ‘Power of Travel’ campaign. The pieces were offered as prizes during Art Basel Miami along with Marriott Bonvoy points.
For early adopters, there is no blueprint for how to succeed in the metaverse, or even how to measure success. But there are signs that experimentation in this sphere could be worth more than the temporary buzz it generates.
Lockdown gave rise to virtual travel as a way of escaping the everyday and embarking on new adventures when hopping on a plane isn’t possible. Looking to the future, hotel brands should be thinking about how to build on this in such a way that enhances the real-world guest experience. We will have to watch this space to see whether NFTs and new digital openings deliver a return for brands, but there are other ways that the metaverse can play a role in hospitality that might be worth exploring. For example:
3D hotel tours
We know that guests are increasingly thorough in their planning and that clear, accurate information about the hotel experience is essential. ‘Virtual tours’ are fairly commonplace now, but most are quite rudimentary and don’t reflect the pleasant flow of moving through a space in reality. Can this be refined and transformed in the metaverse? A smooth walkthrough, in avatar guise, could give travellers a more immersive look inside, with potential for interaction with some of the room features – dimming the lights, exploring the minibar, checking the floor space for accessibility needs, et cetera.
If the metaverse is the meeting of the digital and physical worlds, then perhaps hoteliers should be thinking creatively about how to make the hotel experience part-virtual. The most obvious example is hybrid events, which could host remote business attendees, wedding guests and so on in a more participatory and present way than before.
Give guests the opportunity to explore the area with expert guidance, uncovering local insider tips, restaurant recommendations and lesser-known places to discover. Not only would this help travellers plan their upcoming trip, but it could be gamified with chances to win exclusive discounts or unique experiences. By rooting the hotel in the destination and offering a superlative level of service, this could be an effective way to stand out from competitors.
Nothing can replace the wonder of real travel, but it will be interesting to see whether there is any longevity in using the metaverse to create virtual to physical, or even physical to virtual, purchase journeys. The next few years will be the test of whether it can truly be used by brands to engage with consumers in a meaningful way.
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