Virtual Reality: A New Reality for Meetings and Destinations

Thanks to consumer interest, an immersive experience, and low-cost headsets, virtual reality may become a mainstream feature of association meetings and destination marketing.

Perhaps you were one of the lucky 1 million New York Times subscribers who received virtual reality viewers last fall, thanks to a collaboration with Google.

The power of VR is that it gives the viewer a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events.

Using the cardboard viewers sent to them and their own smartphones (after downloading an app), people could watch The New York Times Magazine’s first VR film project, “The Displaced.”

Those who watched got an 11-minute immersive, 360-degree view of the experience of being a child living in a refugee camp.

“The power of VR is that it gives the viewer a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events,” said Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor.

And many organizations predict that this unique viewing experience is no fad.

According to Consumer Technology Association research, virtual reality headsets are expected to take off this year. Sales are projected to increase by 500 percent over 2015 to reach 1.2 million units sold. In addition, the low-cost Google Cardboard VR headset (around $20) will accelerate uptake over the next 12 months.

So, as people get more comfortable and familiar with the technology, they will also expect their professional associations to experiment with it. One likely place to use VR: meetings and events.

The Attendee Perspective

One of the best parts of attending an association meeting is being able to immerse yourself in the experience, whether that’s by chatting up the person sitting next to you in an education session or taking in the culture the destination has to offer.

However, VR may allow people who are unable to attend your event to join in from afar and soak it up better than current virtual options allow. Or, even better, it may give you the opportunity to provide members access to something they’d usually not have the chance to take part in.

An example of the latter from outside the association world: During New York Fashion Week last month, Coach distributed Google Cardboard to give its customers a front-row seat to one of the brand’s biggest fashion events.

“Whereas a traditional live stream offers our view of the runway show, VR affords the viewer the role of director; 360 offers viewers the luxury of directing their experience with the Coach show, as an attendee might,” said David Duplantis, Coach’s president of global marketing, in an interview with Mashable.

Despite these benefits, associations should not be too concerned that virtual experiences will encroach on face-to-face events. In an article posted earlier this week on Skift, Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, offered his take on the issue.

“I think there’s still a fundamental difference between virtual and live, in the sense that with a live event, I can sit right next to you and have a conversation and look you in the eye. So there’s a kind of connection you can have [in person] that you can’t have in the virtual space,” he said. “It may be in two years where I can put something on my head and you can put something on your head, and we can feel like we’re right next to each other. At that point, maybe that hurts the events or travel industry.”

In the Eyes of Meeting Planners

Another place in the meetings arena where VR can be a benefit is destination and venue marketing. If cities, convention centers, or hotels had compelling VR experiences that planners could view as they were exploring meeting options, those venues might stand out among the competition.

One destination already venturing into VR territory is Destination BC. The “Wild Within VR Experience” is an interactive, three-dimensional video that allows travelers to experience British Columbia in a truly immersive way, as if they were actually there.

Also, in January, Tourism Australia announced that its newest campaign would use 17 virtual-reality experiences and 360-degree videos to give potential visitors a taste of what to expect.

“Virtual Reality and 360 videos are important because rather than just showing how beautiful Australia is, it will get to the ultimate customer benefit, which is how you feel when you come to Australia,” CMO Lisa Ronson told Smart Meetings.

Ronson said the technology will be used at tradeshows, and headsets will be distributed to travel agents to show their clients.

How else do you think virtual reality will play a role in world of association meetings? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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