Tapping into Virtual Marketing

When Chris Holdren, Starwood Hotels’ vice president of Web services, commissioned the construction of one of its new Aloft brand hotels in Second Life last spring, he had no idea what to expect.

"Most of our projects are very focused on the return and the objectives, but for this there was no model for us to go on," Holdren says. Instead, he had to approach it purely as an experiment: "When we started, we didn’t know if the hotel would last a month."

That’s just what most corporate ventures into Second Life are today relatively low-cost experiments in a new Internet medium. But that does not mean they don’t pay off sometimes in unexpected ways.

In an August press release, Starwood promised that the virtual hotel then under construction would provide a sneak peek at Aloft’s "urban-inspired, loft-like guest rooms, landscaped outdoor spaces and energetic lounge scene." Although Starwood was clearly seeking publicity, Holdren professes to be astonished by just how much was generated by that notice and the October launch party that followed. The Virtual Aloft hotel was featured in dozens of newspaper stories, as well as magazines like Fortune. Months later, news features on Second Life still routinely mention Starwood as one of the corporate pioneers in the virtual world.

Starwood got attention for being the first real-world hotel in Second Life, just as American Apparel before it was the first clothing retailer. And this series of "firsts" continues to generate press; for example, with the February announcement from TMP Worldwide, an interactive agency specializing in recruiting ads, which claims to be the first to do recruiting and organize job fairs in Second Life.

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