Visiting a hotel and enjoying a uniquely immersive experience without ever actually physically being there? Attending an exclusive VIP event without leaving the comfort of your own home? The metaverse opens doors that we still have trouble fully conceiving, and its potential link with daily hospitality business remains a mystery for the vast majority of hoteliers.
We thought it was time to explore this somewhat bewildering topic in more detail, and who better than Simone Puorto, precursor and ambassador in the field, to guide us through it. Interviewed by Fiona Gillen, VP Marketing at THN, the impassioned metaverse enthusiast was excited to share his views with us on this intriguing new universe.
F.G. Hi Simone, it’s great to catch up with you! It’s been a while since we last spoke – I hope things are going well. Thanks for taking the time to join us today to talk about all things metaverse and hospitality. We’re excited to hear what you have to say!
S.P. Thank you for having me! Always a pleasure.
F.G. First things first, Simone, please introduce yourself to our readers.
S.P. I am an advisor and founder of the Travel Singularity consulting firm, keynote speaker, MBA lecturer, published author (x4), writer for the main industry blogs, and organizer, with Hospitality Net, of the first Travel and Hospitality event in the metaverse (HN meta meetup). Recently, we’ve launched a new metaverse series (Polybius) with 50+ experts from the metaverse world. During my 25 years in the industry, I have advised many hotel groups worldwide, helped to consolidate one of the leading Italian hotel chains, and acted as an advisor for countless startups in the travel tech space. On a good day, I like to define myself as a “Renaissance Futurist.” On a bad one, I go with “TechnoTroll.” Your pick!
I would definitely go with “Renaissance Futurist”, even on a bad day 🙂 Now, before diving too deeply into today’s topic, perhaps some hoteliers have heard of the metaverse but are not quite sure what it actually means. In a few words, could you please give a simple overview to help set the scene?
Look, I am not a big fan of the word metaverse. As you probably already know, the term comes from a cyberpunk novel from the ’90s. The problem is that the book is highly dystopic: you have the Mafia, drug dealers, mercenaries, and an economic collapse. Not really the best branding, is it? But, hey, I had the same doubts when the Big Brother TV franchise came around in the late ’90s. Getting a name out of Orwell’s 1984 looked like the worst possible idea to me, and yet, it was a success. So, back to your question, you can think of the metaverse as Extended Reality (or, if you want to be more academic, you can think of Extend Reality as the gateway to the metaverse). Virtual reality usually comes to mind when we picture the metaverse, but that’s only one part of the equation, and -probably- not even the most interesting one. So, what’s Extended Reality? XR is a term that combines AR, VR, and MR (mixed reality). We could go as far as saying that all technologically-enhanced realities are, de facto, XR. It can be a digital overlay placed over what we can see and experience in the physical world (a simple Snapchat filter, for example), VR roller coasters, or Pokémon GO. Look, it’s tough to agree on a shared definition, but if you want my two cents, whenever we’re not (only) dealing with the physical world, we’re in the metaverse.
Fantastic thanks. Embarrassingly, I didn’t actually know that the name came from a ‘90s cyberpunk novel so I’m definitely learning new things here too! So tell me, how did you come to be so interested in the metaverse?
I think it all started with my love of sci-fi, really. William Gibson’s Neuromancer greatly impacted me when I first read it. I must have been 13 or 14 at the time, and the main idea of cyberspace fascinated me. Back in the ’90s, Italy did a great job translating pretty much all the books by authors such as Philip K. Dick or James Ballard, so I was lucky to be exposed, at a very young age, to all these novels that, at least theoretically, predicted the metaverse. It happens all the time: everything is “science fiction” until someone turns it into a “science fact.” There are hundreds of examples. H.G. Wells theorized the nuclear bomb 30 years before its creation. Flat-screen TVs and Bluetooth tech already surfaced in Bradbury’s masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451. The iPad? Straight out of Arthur Clarke’s classic 2001, A space odyssey. Google Translate? Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Do you see where I’m going with this? If you want my candid opinion, we should read fewer motivational books and more sci-fi novels.
You may just have a point there. Thinking specifically about our industry, what is your experience with the metaverse within hospitality?
Very mixed. At the top of my mind, I can probably name only four or five exciting projects in our industry. To a certain extent, it’s like the mid-’90s all over again. Everyone seems to suffer from “metaverse FOMO” right now. You should read a fascinating paper titled “A rose.com by any other name.” The paper documents how, during the internet boom, companies that added a “.com” suffix to their names (even though they had nothing to do with the Internet) experienced abnormal returns in terms of stock value. And that’s precisely what is happening with any brand with the words crypto, blockchain, metaverse, or Web3 attached to it. The other day I got contacted by a small hotel chain to get a second opinion on their (highly anticipated) “triumphal entrance to the metaverse.” It was, to be very frank, a disaster. And they invested a ridiculous amount of money in the project. It’s full of amateurs, especially in the environment design & development space. That’s why most custom metaverse environments are glitchy nightmares. Let’s be honest: it will likely take a few years to get to the “utopic” metaverse everyone talks about. First, the metaverse needs some infrastructures that not only do not exist today, but the whole Internet landscape has not been created initially to support such platforms. Moreover, we will need shared standards and protocols to get an interoperable metaverse (probably the most significant barrier to mainstream metaverse adoption). The Metaverse Standards Forum is doing a good job, yet, as of today, there’s no such thing as THE metaverse. There are many metaverses and walled garden platforms. More than the metaverse, what we’re experiencing today is a multiverse.
You organized the HN Meta Meetup in May, which was our industry’s first gathering in the metaverse. I attended the event, and it was the first time I had set up an account in Spatial.io and created an avatar for myself. It was pretty cool! Traveling (virtually) to the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps in Rome and hearing some of our industry’s most forward-thinking personalities share their views on the future of digital transformation in hospitality. Can you tell us a bit more about this pioneering event?
Oh, wow! Thanks! Sure. Look, at some point, almost overnight, everyone started talking about the metaverse. It was suddenly treated like the Next Big Thing, even though most of the central blocks of the metaverse (digital twins, iCommerce, Business-to-Avatar advertising, etc.) have been around for years. To make things worse, it made no sense to me to see a bunch of hospitality experts talking ABOUT the metaverse in a 2D environment. To me, it was like talking about the Internet possibilities over a fax machine. So I decided to do something about it. Let’s get a bunch of friends, and let’s have this discussion INTO the metaverse, not ABOUT it. It all started with me and maybe 2-3 friends, then Henri (Roelings, Hospitality Net’s Founder & CEO) showed some interest in the project. He bought a VR headset and was hooked. Before I knew it, we had 30 speakers and a 10-hour event. Logistically speaking, it was a nightmare. I was given access to the space only a few hours before the event, so I had to run tests all night. I put my headset on at midnight and removed it twenty hours later. I couldn’t really move too much during the event, as I had to moderate it, make sure all the speakers knew what to do, and overview an (overcrowded) WhatsApp chat with the tech guys. At one point, out of pity, my mother came by with some lasagna and fed me with a spoon while I had both eyes in VR. If you watch the uncut version of the event, you can hear her whispering, “hai fame?”(“are you hungry?” in Italian). As a sign of gratitude, I made her an avatar, and she started walking around virtual Rome. I eventually lost her, only to find her one hour later, talking to Zoltan Istvan. That was fun!
I love that story – you seriously just made me laugh out loud. I hope that the next time I travel to Italy that I get to taste some of your mother’s lasagna myself (ideally without having both my eyes in VR…).
Ok, so thinking about hospitality and the metaverse, what are the biggest opportunities for hotel brands? Is it all about enhancing the user experience or pushing personalization even further? Or is it more about technical advantages or something else totally?
In my modest opinion, the metaverse is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It will unlikely replace traveling tout-court, but it will definitely play a role in it, especially in the early, top-funnel touchpoints of the traveler’s journey. Currently, we pick a hotel founding our decision based on photos, videos, and reviews only, while the metaverse could provide a more immersive experience, and allow us to immerse in a destination, book a hotel room or a restaurant table while sitting at our couch, and -eventually- live the experience in the physical world. It’s what I call “travel research on steroids.” No static image, 2D video, or website will ever be able to deliver a comparable experience. It’s the next level of the “try before you buy” concept. And, quite frankly, we’re just scratching the surface. In a ’99 interview, David Bowie stated: “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. We’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.” Of course, he was talking about the Internet, but his words can be applied to the metaverse today. Applications are limitless: you can travel back in time and experience places that no longer exist in the physical world, discover different planets, or travel underwater. Not to mention phygital MICE and hybrid congresses. The metaverse can also help persons with reduced mobility or hospitalized patients take that trip they always dreamt of (even though in a more diluted form), and immersive booking engines could completely change (for the better) the booking process as we know it. And don’t even get me started on targeted advertising! Most headsets can track hand movements and collect data on what surrounds you while you’re in VR, the objects you have in the house, the people around you, etc. Twenty minutes in VR collect 2 million data. Let that info sink. That’s every marketer’s dream!
F.G. And is there any branding potential? How do you think hotels can represent themselves in this dematerialized space?
S.P. Again. The metaverse is not dematerialized. That’s the false narrative we are trying to correct.
F.G. Oops, sorry…
S.P. No problem. The metaverse is, if anything, phygital. Sure, we can target our customers with a Direct-to-Avatar approach (the digital good/service never leaves the virtual world). Still, we also have Digital-to-Physical (you can try a good before it is delivered to your home or visit a room before booking it) or Physical-to-Digital (purchase of a physical asset and receiving also its digital copy). Forever 21 is a perfect example of the latter, as it simultaneously releases its new collections in physical and immersive stores. Customers increasingly jump between physical and digital realms in the journey to making a purchase. Thinking of the metaverse as simple VR is like looking at a good pizza and thinking you’re about to eat a raw tomato. Until we overcome this binary mental scheme, we’ll never grasp the essence of the metaverse. If you have kids or nephews, you comprehend that, for them, playing in Roblox with an avatar 1,000 km away one day and hide-and-seek in the physical world the day after, is pretty much the same experience. It’s time we reconsider what we (think) we know about the concept of reality. In his latest book, Reality+, technophilosophist David Chalmers theorizes that XR (and, consequently, the metaverse) will become indistinguishable in just a few decades from physical reality to the point that it will be meaningless to differentiate between the two. At a closer look, reality is simply a form of consensus among individuals.
What do you think the biggest challenges will be for hotel brands in the next five years?
Interoperability. No doubt about it. The risk of betting in the wrong metaverse and being left empty-handed in five years is real. Interoperability of platforms is not a prerequisite for the metaverse, but without it, we’ll end up working in silos with the same (disastrous) Web 2.0’s paradigm. We must make sure that environments, objects, avatars, NFTs, avatar skins, etc. can be moved from one platform to the other. I should be able to play Axie Infinity, then sell my Axie on OpenSea, get paid in Ethereum, buy an avatar skin in Minecraft, and then wear it in Decentraland. That’s the central concept of decentralization (and the core idea of Web 3.0). Are we there yet? Definitely not.
How does Travel Singularity help hotels to cope with a rapidly changing technological world?
Travel Singularity’s vision has always been to solve the growing need to connect the dots between digital disruption and change with the existing technology and processes. I created the firm to assist clients with digital disruption and technology changes. We maintain that hospitality is not a complicated industry or, at least, it does not necessarily have to be. We actively support cooperation between biological and artificial employees and advocate for an open, collaborative, hyper-connected industry where humans can flourish and innovate, free from the repetitive tasks they are now obliged to perform daily. I think what Traveling Singularity is good at is speculating about the future. As philosopher Luciano Floridi puts it, “the technophile and the technophobe ask the same question. What’s next?” Well, that’s what drives us: trying to predict what’s next as accurately as possible.
If a hotelier is interested in starting to explore the metaverse to see how it could be relevant for their hotel brand, what would you recommend doing as some first steps?
There are at least two questions they should ask themselves. First, what’s the demographic of the metaverse you picked? 67% of Roblox users are under 16, so it may not be the best platform to build on, at least for now. Second, how much does it cost to create a virtual hotel? That’s a hot one. You can get ten quotes from ten design firms with completely different price ranges. I am currently working to create a digital twin meeting room for a client, and I’ve received a contract for 1K€ and one for 85K€. Most people are still figuring this out, and it’s normal to see these discrepancies. Moreover, some metaverse needs land to build on. And that can be pretty expensive. There’s much digital real-estate speculation. Last year, investment company Republic Realm bought a piece of land in The Sandbox for around four million €. That’s an exception, not the norm, of course, but even in the best scenario, a 16mx16m plot of land in The Sandbox will still cost you around 3 ETH, and that’s not including gas fees.
Wow! And for the more ambitious, how would you recommend going full steam ahead?
To avoid the innovator’s dilemma trap. I would suggest not going too crazy with the metaverse just yet. Metaverse adoption in hospitality is not so mainstream as other industries, such as real estate, architecture/engineering, manufacturing, fashion, and -of course- gaming. I would probably start with the only thing that can be profitable in the short term: meta-MICE and virtual events. If you’re considering getting your property in the metaverse, I suggest starting with your meeting rooms and re-invest what you earn in long-term projects. I would also recommend buying some land now, as “crypto winter” is coming, and ETH is down 56%…
Interesting… definitely something to look into. Do you have any other closing comments or something we’ve missed?
Just one personal note. What I’ve learned from the first event in the metaverse is that we need desperately different approaches to understand the metaverse. Social scientist Etienne Wenger once wrote that “the days of Leonardo da Vinci are over,”and today’s complex problem-solving requires “multiple perspectives.” I agree with Surowiecki that a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals will likely make predictions better than a group of like-minded experts. That was the central weak point of my first metaverse experiment. All the speakers were great, don’t get me wrong, but they were looking at the metaverse opportunities with the exact same mindset. That’s why I’ve created Polybius, bringing together a group of thought-leaders and experts, but mainly from OUTSIDE the hospitality industry (academics, devs, NFT artists, even a metaverse lawyer!). If we all look in the same direction, it’s easy to miss what’s happening just behind our backs. And I can assure you that there’s quite a lot going on!
There definitely is. It’s really been eye-opening and in the words of Bowie, I don’t think we have even seen the tip of the iceberg. You’ve inspired me to delve more into this mysterious new realm, as I’m sure will be the case for many of our readers. I look forward to watching how this all evolves, in the hospitality space and in general.