Have You Ever Learned about a topic while sitting atop a giant paintbrush? Or taken a break between sessions for a quick skydive? Or been saved the trouble of wandering around the convention center looking in vain for your session room by being teleported to the right place at the right time? These were just a few of the things that made it obvious to attendees at the April grand opening of a new convention center that this was not your regular conference venue.

Chatting with a fellow attendee decked out as a griffin, flying through chandeliers, and finding yourself unable to put down a glass of bubbly also were de rigueur at the opening of Virtualis, the new convention center that sprang into being in a Web-based world called Second Life. But the grand opening of the new center, a two-day conference, was far from unrecognizable to those more used to real-world conventions, featuring keynote speakers, educational sessions, and even networking receptions with bands and pyrotechnics. Attendees downloaded the free Second Life software, designed their in-Second-Life selves, called avatars, and learned the basics of maneuvering in virtual space. Then they were ready to learn from the speaker lineup, which was not dissimilar to what you would see at any meetings industry association meeting, including luminaries such as business author Joe Pine (who, with co-author Jim Gilmore, in fact did headline at the Professional Convention Management Association this year); futurist and innovation expert Jim Carroll; adult learning specialist and meetings consultant Joan Eisenstodt; and industry legal guru John Foster.

Virtualis is the brainchild of Dan Parks, president and creative director of Corporate Planners Unlimited Inc., Dana Point, Calif., who first got his feet wet in designing virtual meeting spaces by creating the MeCo Mansion for the Meetings Community, an online group and listserv for planners and suppliers. With the help of Gloria Nelson, CSEP, chief experience officer with Gloria Nelson Event Design LLC, Winneconne, Wis., and collaborators from around the globe, Parks was able to provide grand opening attendees a ballroom whose setting can be changed in an instant from an awards gala to a comedy club to standard general session styles. The convention center also hosts smaller meeting rooms and an exhibit hall featuring 3-D exhibits. More meeting rooms can be found in two nearby skyscrapers, and there's an outdoor amphitheater as well. Not to mention the Eisenstodt Learning Center, where the set can be changed from an artist's studio where the session leader stands on a ladder and participants lounge on paintbrushes and easels, to an underground cavern, a rain forest, and an undersea scenario. All meeting spaces have full audiovisual capabilities, including streaming live video.

All of which is available for rent for those who are willing to brave the attendee learning curve — not everyone takes immediately to maneuvering in the virtual world. Parks concedes that there are some limitations, but he is doing his best to make the venue work for anyone who wants to try it, including an orientation platform on the convention center's roof, where he says it will take attendees no more than 10 minutes to get acclimated to Second Life. He also stresses that the Virtualis staff is ready and willing to provide any services a planner might need to make the meeting a success, whether that is custom-designing speaker avatars, providing streaming video, or creating sponsor logos.

“Some planners are afraid they're going to lose business over [virtual meeting options],” says Parks. “Virtualis is no different from any other convention center — we put the planner front and center.” Far from being a replacement for face-to-face meetings, Parks sees Second Life venues as “just another tool planners can put in their utility belts,” he says. “If your client loses its budget, you don't have to lose the meeting. This gives you a virtual option.”

Meetingsnet.com:

  • The Green Meeting Industry Council, Portland, Ore., has appointed Tamara Kennedy Hill executive director. Kennedy Hill comes to the GMIC from Travel Portland, the city's convention and visitors bureau.

  • JetBlue Airways has expanded its meetings program. Group discounts are available for attendees coming from various destinations and booking travel themselves using a meeting-specific discount code at the JetBlue Web site.

  • Sue Tinnish has been named director of APEX, the Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange Initiative. Tinnish is a planner, trainer, and facilitator, and a volunteer on the APEX Educational Advisory Council.

  • A new TSA program lets travelers select an airport security lane based on their experience with airport regulations. The program, running in Salt Lake City, Denver, Boston, Orlando, and Spokane, Wash., is expected to expand.

Related articles:
Meetings in Second Life
Taking the Chat Virtual
Turning Meetings Upside Down