Skift Take

All-digital experiences are a pandemic legacy, and the financial services sector is seeing a lot of value in the extra dimension that virtual reality can bring to conferences, training and education. Business meetings aren’t that far away.

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Analysts and advisors at Morningstar could soon be wearing virtual reality headsets instead of traveling to meetings in the future, as growing numbers of financial services companies enter the metaverse.

Another company, Accenture, ordered 60,000 Oculus Quest 2 headsets in October last year for its trainees who weren’t able to meet in person. It also created a virtual office environment called the Nth Floor. Fidelity Investments, meanwhile, has been looking into the effectiveness of training in virtual reality, after a pilot program involving 140 employees.

After two years of digital experimentation, a clear pandemic legacy is emerging.

And banking overall continues to be the most cautious sector when reopening offices. American Express Global Business Travel has highlighted how two customers in the sector, which it didn’t name, hadn’t yet fully reopened their buildings — their travel had resumed to just 24 percent and 33 percent in total transaction volume for the second quarter, compared to the same period in 2019, it revealed during its investor day on Tuesday. Another banking client that had reopened offices was at 66 percent of pre-pandemic travel spend.

A Generation Without Travel Needs?

Corporate travel agencies, as well as hotels and airlines, should be paying attention to Chicago-headquartered Morningstar’s next moves. It has encouraged its own trainees to use virtual reality, allowing them to expense the technology if they sign up to test it out and provide feedback, and is factoring in VIP metaverse experiences at its hybrid 2022 investor conference at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center on May 16-18.

The acceleration in new technologies won’t be stopping with the end of mask mandates, and Morningstar, which has 8,500 employees, has been working closely with VR specialist Mesmerise on developing virtual and augmented reality experiences at its conferences since 2017. The company, founded by veteran journalist Andrew Hawken, has also organized virtual conferences for the likes of Allianz and Wells Fargo.

“We were knee deep in planning things for 2020, we had a (virtual reality) game called sustainable city, which is all about environmental social and governance investing. We also had a fun ‘bee game’ where you had to rescue as many bees as possible, which is tied into sustainability,” said Leslie Marshall, head of experiential marketing. “Then everything came to grinding halt, and it turned to an all-digital experience.”

In 2021, Mesmerise asked Morningstar if it wanted to run its investment conference entirely in the metaverse. If Accenture was able to buy 60,000 headsets, it didn’t seem price was  going to be a barrier. Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 headset is now priced around $400, and Morningstar sold 250 investor conference tickets that included one for $649. For the desktop-only version of the conference, tickets were $399.

By contrast, Morningstar’s virtual reality endeavors in 2019 involved high-spec gaming laptops, censors and headsets that altogether cost between $3,000 to $4,000.

“We completed that project with Mesmerise in six weeks, they were really fast on that pivot,” added Marshall, who was also Morningstar’s director of events, magazine and social media from 2013 until 2017.

Morningstar is also trialing virtual reality for individual meetings that could dent future corporate travel bookings. “People haven’t realized that’s an opportunity. But working with Mesmerise we’re working on showing them the possibilities of where would they meet, how would they use that meeting space,” she said. While it’s more focused on events as opposed to meetings, Morningstar is running experiments in Australia and Chicago.

Filtering Down to Clients

A growing trend is that early adopters of virtual reality seem keen to use the method to engage with their own customers.

“By bringing in new technology and new ways of working, it’s really beneficial for us,” Brian Smyth, Accenture’s innovation lead for the communications and media industry, told Silicon Republic last month. “And more importantly then, how we bring that to our clients in new ways.”

Morningstar is no different, with its Australia team recently hosting an invite-only event for advisor clients in virtual reality, which featured presentations, product demos and a Q&A. “They really liked being on the cutting edge of being able to see and experiment with this, they’d never done it before,” Marshall noted. “One of my mandates to think about is what can we do for our clients here in Chicago, but also how can we take these experiences and adapt them for our other offices … everyone on my team has a headset, we’ve done meetings in virtual reality.”

Its partner Mesmerise is also seeing demand for training executives, to help sometimes ego-sensitive CEOs feel comfortable with putting on a headset.

“They wanted to know the proper way to say hello to people in the metaverse, what’s the etiquette. Like everyone, we’re exploring what this medium means,” Marshall continued. “The thing to think about is it’s not where the market is now, but where are we going, and how do we continue to experiment and innovate with this technology.”

With headsets becoming more affordable, and Apple expected to launch its own virtual reality hardware later this year, it’s a market that may turn mainstream sooner than expected.

Sidenotes

We’ll be hearing a lot more from Meta, formerly known as Facebook, over the coming months as business travel conferences bounce back. There’s some irony in face-to-face events putting such a focus on virtual reality, but there’s a lot to discuss.

Meta, of course, owns headset maker Oculus, and there’ll be probing questions from a sector that’s trying to wrap its head around the metaverse. The main question will be: Is it friend or foe?

Later this month the UK’s Institute of Travel Management will be running a dedicated session at its annual conference on how “developments around artificial intelligence and the metaverse are hurtling towards us.”

In France, The Future of Business Travel has lined up Julien Lechat, Meta’s “client partner travel,” as a speaker. Next month, the corporate travel division of Flight Centre is also recruiting a Meta representative for its “Metaverse 101: What This New Online Phenomenon Means for Corporate Travel” session. It wants to explore if this new online community will replace travel. FCM’s event hybrid forum called Th!nk is being run in association with the Global Business Travel Association.

Lodging companies are also tackling the metaverse head on. The topic will likely crop up during Skift’s Future of Lodging Forum on May 11-12, with Marriott International’s Jennifer Hsieh speaking — Marriott’s loyalty brand Bonvoy is building a presence within the metaverse to engage with consumers.

CitizenM is currently test-driving its marketing potential, while Ascott, which is part of CapitaLand Investment Limited, this week launched the lyf Innovation Lab to coincide with the opening of a new co-living property in Singapore. Created with Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Informatics & IT, the lab could eventually provide a new way for guests at lyf properties to connect in the metaverse.

More musings come from Accor, whose coworking brand Wojo has taken a dive into the metaverse’s collaboration potential, while Travelport, as part of its Modern Retailing video series, talks about why now is the time for travel to explore opportunities in virtual reality.

Every year has its buzzword, and 2022’s will be the metaverse. You have been warned.

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Tags: Accenture, american express global business travel, business travel, citizenm, corporate travel, fcm, Future of Work Briefing, gbta, marriott, marriott bonvoy, metaverse, selina, skift live, Skift Pro Columns, virtual reality