Tapping the metaverse 
for tourism players

In this new world, hospitality and travel stakeholders can now endeavour to build and fund virtual and physical hotels with NFTs, create meta-international attractions and immersive events, promote their offerings, alleviate manpower crunch, and so much more. By Serene Foo

Tourism players can now get the opportunity to market and put their products and services in front of a massive market of 20 million gaming players, if they can get their avatars ready in time.

BuzzAR, a Singapore-based metaverse start-up, is launching its virtual land, ToonLand, next year. Bell Beh, its co-founder and CEO told TTG Asia that hospitality stakeholders can then utilise its metaverse with its huge audience for branding and as a new way to engage their customers.

citizenM intends to use profits from the sale of NFTs to finance a real-life hotel where token holders will vote on the location

“We are building the creator tools for creators and authoring tools for businesses to co-create within ToonLand,” she explained.

BuzzAR’s suite of augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions has changed the way tourism stakeholders interact with their customers.

Some metaverse applications for their hospitality clients include gamified wayfinding to guide tourists from point A to B and an avatar engine to turn face into avatar in real-time.

At the upcoming London Tech Week in June, BuzzAR will launch a CryptoToon API (Application Programming Interface) project with the Singapore Economic Development Board, as well as mark the official launch of its genesis NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which will be user-generated.

Using the start-up’s intuitive APIs, everyone can create their own avatars and mint their own NFTs. “We have over 2.18 million avatars, created by users from 163 countries and the numbers are growing exponentially everyday,” added Beh.

Essentially, BuzzAR aims “to lower the entry barriers for everyone to tap into this trillion-dollar (metaverse) market”.

Enter the metaverse
First described by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the buzzword, metaverse, surged to the forefront when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his technology giant to Meta Platforms.

Zuckerberg envisioned an embodied Internet, in which people can have enriched interactions – a blend of VR (virtual reality), AR, and AI – and where one can move from object to object, world to world using AR.

Although the metaverse only started trending recently, the concept is not new.

A convergence of the digital and physical worlds or “phygital”, it has already been adopted by gaming platforms. Technology companies have tried to incorporate metaverse elements in popular games including Animal Crossing and Fortnite.

While it is unlikely that virtual travel will ever replace the wonderous experience one gets when exploring a destination in person, it will no doubt benefit hospitality players if they embrace new technologies for their businesses to be future-ready and to increase bottomlines too.

Hotels and NFTs
Hospitality players and aspiring hoteliers can take a leaf from citizenM’s playbook on how to build virtual and physical hotels by utilising NFTs for financing, promote digital art and artists, as well as engage guests both online and in the real world.

In a recent move to venture into the metaverse, the global hospitality brand claimed to be the first to buy property in The Sandbox.

The Sandbox is a metaverse where users can create and monetise their own distinct worlds and game experiences on LANDs, which are NFTs that represent virtual real estate.

citizenM acquired a LAND site in the leading decentralised gaming virtual world to begin building a hotel. “We are thrilled to be the first hospitality company to build in the metaverse,” said Robin Chadha, CMO of citizenM.

“As a brand that has always pushed the boundaries and challenged traditional models, this new venture in The Sandbox fits not only with our brand strategy but also the commitment we have to the creative community and to our guests both online and in the real world.”

Once the LAND is bought, citizenM aims to finance the build of a hotel in the virtual world through the sale of an exclusive collection of NFTs with real-world rewards or utilities attached.

Utilities will take the form of discounts, free drinks and more with the specifics determined by the level of NFT assigned to the purchaser. They will be redeemable at any of citizenM’s growing portfolio of hotels in the real world. Currently, it includes 24 hotels in 16 cities globally.

Once the virtual hotel – a location for avatars visiting The Sandbox to work, sleep and play – is built, citizenM will collaborate with an additional roster of digital artists to create and sell NFTs that can be purchased in the digital space.

Eventually, the pioneer of affordable luxury hotels plans to use these profits, as well as the incorporation of a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), to fully finance a physical, real-life property where token holders will vote on the location – essentially creating a hotel for the people, by the people.

The Hunger Games: The Exhibition invites visitors to use real bows and safe arrows to interact with a virtual world

Cruising into metaverse
Norwegian Cruise Line is also in on the game, launching its own NCL NFT marketplace to allow travellers and NCL loyals to own a piece of its newest vessels, Norwegian Prima and Norwegian Viva.

It claims to be the first in the cruise industry to sail into the NFT marketplace.

Italian artist Manuel Di Rita, who designed the hull art on both ships, will create six art pieces – one will be auctioned at a starting rate of US$2,500, and the remaining NFTs will be sold for prices beginning at US$250. The auction winner will also be awarded a balcony stateroom on one of Norwegian Prima’s inaugural voyages in the US.

All proceeds from the NFT auction and sales will be donated to Teach For America, which finds, develops, and supports a network of leaders who expand opportunity for children.

Elevating the booking process
As BuzzAR’s ToonLand illustrated, another obvious metaverse application for hotel chains, cruise brands, travel agencies and other businesses is to use the platform to amplify their promotional efforts.

For a start, hospitality players can enrich the guest experience – right from the consideration stage.

Xiong Zehui, assistant professor, Information Systems Technology and Design, Singapore University of Technology and Design, told TTG Asia: “In the area of hospitality, when customers book a hotel room, they can tele-present in the room they want to book through virtual reality. In this way, customers can view the inside and outside of the hotel room and know exactly what they are getting prior to booking it.”

Travellers can even turn into digital avatars and virtually walk through the hotel property or resort before the check-in.

Through immersive experiences, hospitality players can now showcase their rooms, décor, amenities and even surroundings to its full splendour to entice keen guests – taking the booking process to the next level.

Indeed as Beh pointed out, adopting metaverse applications can generate various benefits relating to brand awareness, productivity and increase in revenue, done through very creative solutions.

She shared how one hospitality client accumulated an estimated S$500,000 (US$365,604) in bookings after running a WebAR campaign with BuzzAR, gaining an ROI of 100 times.

BuzzAR’s avatars in a public mall setting. Courtesy of BuzzAR

Alleviate manpower crunch
Avatars and AR/VR may even replace physical staff, according to articles on Hospitality Net. AI-powered avatars can further eliminate the variations in service operations caused by human individual factors.

With the metaverse becoming a virtual workspace for hospitality staff, hotels can deploy flexible, work-from-home schedules that today’s workforce demands, as well as address the labour challenge.

Digital attraction opportunities
In the same vein, tourism players can deploy metaverse applications such as the use of mixed reality to create digital attractions based on existing ones in the real world.

Such content can interact with the visitor in 3D and real-time – not only as a complement to the real attraction but also as a stand-alone digital attraction for visitors in the metaverse, according to Xiong.

He cited the example of Disney, the international leader in tourism and hospitality with an extensive portfolio of physical parks and virtual entertainment content worldwide.

Disney’s virtual game, Play Disney Parks, is complementary to its physical parks. The AR game allows visitors of the park to complete tasks with family and friends, based on Bluetooth beacon settings and the phone camera, to activate the hidden AR elements around them.

While waiting in line for a ride on a spaceship, players can for instance see the rocket “flying” overhead.

Another Singapore-based start-up, Vizzio, which is at the forefront of 3D capture and visualisation, has created a 1:1 replica of Gardens by the Bay in under three days for an event.

In the project, Vizzio’s AI created the models using a patent-protected algorithm that can create normalised digital surface model raster by aggregating the height of points gathered from satellite imagery.

Vizzio is able to stream this event over the network to any browser without the need to install any app – an exciting enterprise use of metaverses, according to Vizzio’s co-founder and CEO, Jon Li.

Every metaverse application requires 3D content, be it a digital product, an indoor space or an entire city.

Li opined: “We see the metaverse as a continuum that spans the spectrum of digitally enhanced worlds, realities and business models. It applies across all aspects of business, from consumer to worker and across the entire enterprise; from reality to virtual and back; from 2D to 3D; and from cloud and artificial intelligence to extended reality. It is the future of digital businesses.”

The current pandemic may have made offline activities challenging but the metaverse opened up other possibilities – by scanning the space of the attraction and uploading the results to the cloud, the cloud algorithm can process the data of the authentic international attraction into an explorable space, added Xiong.

In the metaverse, crowding, labour, climate, venue limitations, traffic conditions are no longer part of the equation as visitors can explore attractions without leaving the comfort of their homes.

Room for innovation
Later this year, Cityneon Holdings will launch Avatar: The Experience at Gardens by the Bay’s Cloud Forest in Singapore.

The walk-through event incorporating metaverse applications allows guests to connect with the alien world of Pandora, its bioluminescent environments, mythical creatures, flora, and the captivating culture of its indigenous people, the Na’vi.

Welby Altidor, group chief creative officer, Cityneon, told TTG Asia that the company is constantly on a lookout for ways to integrate different technologies into their immersive offerings.

“The metaverse is something we have already applied to many of our experiences, such as the use of AR, VR, and other new technologies, and we are also continuously exploring different ways to tell the story to make the experiences truly memorable for our guests,” Altidor added.

For its brand-new artefact IP experience, Machu Picchu and the Golden Empires of Peru, Cityneon has integrated a VR experience where visitors can admire the UNESCO heritage site in its full view.

The Hunger Games: The Exhibition uses an award-winning game engine to create the archery experience where visitors use real bows and safe arrows to interact with a video virtual world on the world’s largest interactive touchscreen display.

Cityneon houses teams dedicated to applying new technologies – BIG LAB creates the content for all its experiences, and designs all the guest experiences; ANIMAX, which comprises a team of creative technologists, is behind its state-of-the-art animatronics.

“Our visitors feel that the virtual worlds really add to the experience and the feedback has been very encouraging. We definitely see great potential in developing this technology for all our other experiences that are touring the world,” added Altidor.

To take it further, travel and hospitality brands can come up with similar “packages” to allow tourists to virtually visit a destination or attend a festival with friends.

Some of these friends may be on-site at the festival while others attend virtually, through holograms or their avatars.

Adopt a metaverse strategy
Industry stakeholders in Singapore keen to undergo a digital transformation can look to Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) Tourism Technology Transformation Cube’s (Tcube) support to supplement their businesses’ AR capabilities.

STB has developed 100 3D models of points of interests, and these are available via the Tourism Information and Services hub for industry players to utilise for free. The concept has been expanded into extended reality (XR), which encompasses augmented, mixed and virtual reality.

To create engaging interactive content, STB is also keen to pilot proof-of-concepts with the sector. It has worked with S.E.A. Aquarium on an AR app for visitors to interact with marine animals digitally, and learn more about marine life.

It even launched a grant call, The Next Experience, in February with the purpose of creating XR-enabled experiences that motivate people to visit multiple points of interest.

Beh reckoned: “Every business should have a metaverse strategy. The estimated market for businesses is at least 100 billion dollars.

“Early adopters will dominate the game, as history has taught us many times. If I were a hospitality business, I would allocate a percentage of revenue to be re-invested in this high growth area.”

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