We tend to speak of convention centers in terms of square feet, as though they are simply boxes into which we place our attendees and exhibitors. Certainly some convention centers still approach business that way. But savvy operators know they're not just selling four walls and a roof. Here are 10 convention centers whose managers are interested in more than how many dollars per square foot they can get from you.

CONNECTIVITY Dallas Gooses its Wireless Network "We're pretty fast, but we're going to be faster," says Paula Tait, Internet sales manager for the Dallas Convention Center. "By the time the [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] rolls in in November, we'll be at 100 megabits per second." Dallas was first in the world to install a wireless network on its exhibition floor, in July 1997. And the convention and visitors bureau, which owns and operates the system, has no intention of becoming roadkill on the information superhighway. So the current 3 megabit, high-end wireless system--already twice as fast as a T1 line--is headed for the old networks home.

The meeting rooms, unlike the exhibit floor, are hard-wired at 10 megabits per second, over a 17-mile fiber-optic network, because the wireless system won't operate through concrete walls. The wired network can be connected to the wireless network.

What's the advantage of a wireless system? "Before wireless, the exhibitors had to come in a week in advance and crawl along the catwalks and wire everything through the ceiling to set up a network drop," says Tait. "Now, we just give them a little antenna that connects to their hub, which gives them wireless access to computers on the exhibit floor." All the computers on the floor need are Ethernet cards and browsers. It's cost effective, says Tait, because the convention organizer doesn't have to pay anyone to run cable. Services available range from a simple connection to the Internet from an exhibit booth (which Tait says takes all of five minutes) to a booth-to-booth network to a private encrypted network.

Speed inside the building is matched by speedy outside connections: A DS3 line (data-carrying equivalent to a T3 line) is capable of moving information at 90 megabytes per second--so there are no data-transfer bottlenecks.

Other recent converts to wireless Internet include the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas and the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.

FOOD SERVICE Laurels for Fort Lauderdale You have no doubt seen the little red, blue, and gold coat of arms of the "Chaine des Rotisseurs" on the walls of the kinds of restaurants you don't go into unless you have a really important client (and a really great T&E budget). The Chaine goes back to 1248, when it was a guild of meat-roasters in France--started by a saint, no less (St. Louis, who was king at the time). These days it is an international professional fine-dining society. And, incredible but true, one convention center in the United States has been inducted into the organization--the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center.

The man behind this is David Berman, the convention center's executive chef. His qualifications in fine dining include stints at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and at Sheraton's world headquarters in Boston. Berman is a man of many talents: He's not only capable of serving restaurant-quality dinners to groups of up to 4,000, he's also a world-class ice sculptor. And his ambitions for convention center fare are lofty:

"I want people to have something they'd never think of getting at a convention center," he says. "I want them ... to be happily surprised by the food."

The French association notwithstanding, Berman and his core staff of 12 don't limit themselves to quenelles and souffles. They'll gladly produce Italian, Asian, Caribbean, or Tex-Mex menus and themes--always, says Berman, with attention to both taste and presentation.

How does a convention center attain membership in the Chaine? By successfully hosting a dinner for the organization's membership, says Berman. This is where an executive chef finds out if his staff has the right stuff. As the Chaine tactfully points out in its own literature: "Hosting a Chaine des Rotisseurs event offers the opportunity to showcase exceptional skills and creativity for an appreciative, knowledgeable audience. ... Those who 'work' a Chaine dinner from planning to the final accolades remember it for a long while."

ARCHITECTURE Hong Kong Builds on its Strengths There are two schools of thought about convention centers. Some operators want conference organizers to have the same experience wherever they go: convention center as big, empty box into which meetings and exhibits are inserted. Some, like the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, want organizers, exhibitors, and attendees never to forget that they are somewhere in particular. At the same time, the HKCEC, like any other convention center, is concerned with functionality.

That combination of a sense of place, along with aesthetics and functionality, led the American Institute of Architecture's Chicago chapter to give the 1.6-million-square-foot HKCEC Extension its "Distinguished Building Design" award in 1999.

In its design, the building faced an important constraint, according to Larry Oltmanns, design partner with Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, architects for the project. "Land is more expensive than construction in Hong Kong," he says. "To build a sprawling, one-story building in the style of America--home of the wide-open spaces--would have been seen as extravagant."

Instead, Oltmanns and his staff came up with a four-level building. At the same time, he never lost sight of functional requirements. There are truck docks on every level--exhibitors are not constrained by the dimen- sions of a freight elevator. Having four levels also means four opportunities for scenic views, and here Oltmanns makes no bones about wanting to show off the city. "If you're in any of the public spaces, you've got a view of the harbor and of the Central district, which is the heart of downtown Hong Kong. You're not in an amorphous space that could be anywhere in the world--you're having a very specific experience."

LABOR RELATIONS Philly Negotiates Labor Education "This is a good program," says Mike Conway about the Pennsylvania Convention Center's (PCC) new certification program for workers at the 1.3-million-square-foot Philadelphia venue. Why is Conway's opinion so important? Because he's the Teamster Steward at the PCC, and if a union leader thinks training backed by the PCC is a good thing, then it's a fair bet the program will be a success. The PCC certification program is the brainchild of Robert Butera, president and CEO of the PCC Authority. He has seen the PCC's success in attracting big conventions and wants to make sure the facility remains successful. "If we want to continue to be as busy as we are now, we have to strive to keep improving the quality of service we provide our customers, and quality work begins with trained workers."

Only union members who have completed the program will be allowed to work on the exhibit floor, and their status will be easily distinguished by the badges they will wear, which will feature bar codes indicating the skills and certification level of the workers wearing them.

The first certification course, in forklift safety, was given late last year, in sessions sponsored by the PCC and GES Exposition Services. More than 200 PCC union workers took part in the eight classes offered over four days at the convention center. Ahead are additional training sessions in hospitality skills and in the use of other heavy equipment in the building.

How did the PCC get the unions to acquiesce to this training program? Simple self-interest, according to Conway of the Teamsters. "The more work that comes to the building, the better for us."

And while the PCC benefits from improved labor productivity and safety, meeting planners benefit, too, says Ken Matty, labor coordinator for the PCC. "It is reassuring for our customers to know that the person transporting thousands of dollars worth of freight is not anonymous anymore," he says. "Now [they] know the name, which trade, and what certification the worker has."

COMMUNITY RELATIONS D.C. Center Involves, Educates its Neighbors The Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) in the District of Columbia is building a new 2.3-million-square-foot convention center. Some innovative plans are associated with the new facility, including a 60-bay underground loading dock to be fed from a truck-marshalling yard located about 10 minutes away, all to prevent 40-foot rigs from lining up and idling on the streets of neighborhood. The most innovative aspect of the new convention center, however, is the way the WCCA arrived at this and other strategies that made the project both workable as a world-scale facility and acceptable to its neighbors.

A main attraction of the old convention center is its location: It's downtown, between the Capitol Building and the White House, in a neighborhood known as The Shaw. The WCCA knew the location was a good draw and wanted to keep it for the new facility. That meant convincing the city that a 16-acre project could be built without destroying the neighborhood. The Shaw, an area whose southernmost end would be host to the new building, is a neighborhood in transition: It has a higher per-capita income than many suburban towns. It contains thriving, close-knit neighborhoods that are fiercely proud of their cultural diversity as well as vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

The WCCA, in consultation with neighborhood organizations, hit upon an innovative way to get the community behind the new construction: It started the Shaw Comprehensive Job Training Academy. This unique organization is a joint venture of a private educational company called the Noah Group and a local community development organization, the Peoples Involvement Corp. The Academy is a place where local residents can learn the skills to be employed at the Convention Center and a source of information about nearby programs where residents can acquire these skills.

Is it working? Yes--well enough that Randy Wells, a Shaw community leader, has proposed that the Academy become a permanent neighborhood organization.

What will all this mean for planners who come into the building after it opens in March 2003? They'll be meeting in a building that was built with the neighborhood's approval and, in many instances, built by people from the neighborhood who were trained by the Shaw Comprehensive Job Training Academy.

PERFORMANCE GUARANTEES Money-back Offer from Cincinnati The Northern Kentucky Convention Center knows it won't exactly win the glamour destination sweepstakes, so it has found an innovative way to get the attention of event planners: It offers a money-back guarantee. Yup, you heard right. Even more amazing is that in the first year of the unconditional Meetings Guarantee Program, not one qualifying group has asked for its money back.

According to Northern Kentucky CVB spokeswoman Sheree Allgood, the novel program has helped to entice nearly 20 groups, representing more than 23,000 room nights, to book their meetings at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which opened in February 1999. Hotels in the region--which includes Kenton, Campbell, and Boone counties, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati--have signed on to the program as well.

Borrowed from a trend in other goods and services industries, the guarantee was the brainchild of Barbara Dozier, the bureau's vice president of sales and marketing. As far as she knows, no one else is putting money-back offers on the line.

Although the guarantee is unconditional, groups must meet certain requirements to qualify. A group must generate at least 250 rooms per night for three nights and agree to pre- and post-convention meetings with the CVB or convention center staff. Public shows do not qualify.

If a planner is not satisfied, the group will receive a free day's rent at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which translates into upward of $12,000.

How serious is the convention and visitor bureau about its guarantee? Allgood says it's easy and pretty painless to invoke. A simple "I am not happy," she says, will get the ball rolling.

SECURITY Vancouver's Watching You At high-tech events, security concerns are a constant, given the volume of expen- sive--and often proprietary--equipment on-site. At the Vancouver (B.C.) Trade & Convention Centre, they're keeping an eye on the problem--many eyes, that is. By virtue of being part of the 172,000-square-foot Canada Place, the convention center is protected on the outside by a state-of-the-art closed-circuit television system featuring a special interface and routing system built by Cybermation Systems, Richmond, B.C. The most important feature of the system is that it's virtually ubiquitous around the center and Canada Place's other facilities, including the Vancouver Board of Trade, a luxury hotel, a cruise ship port, and myriad retail and dining establishments.

The secret, according to Arthur Ott, vice president of Cybermation, is proprietary technology that lets security personnel monitor many different locations at once on the same screen. A graphical user interface allows for easy camera panning and tilting so cameras can track movement from a central office. Approximately 50 cameras watch over Canada Place.

Meanwhile, inside the convention center, security is handled by more traditional means, including regular security officer patrols and extensive use of motion detectors. Between the outside eye and the inside patrols and monitors, not much gets out of the facility that isn't supposed to, according to James Little, head of marketing and business development for the Convention and Exhibition Centre. "We have good success this way," he says. "For example, during Comdex Canada we had no thefts reported despite the amazing amount of computer equipment." His most demanding customers are such international political get-togethers as APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, a 21-country development group that came to the facility in 1997. For that type of event, according to Little, it takes more people, not just cameras, to satisfy security requirements.

SPACE GUARANTEES San Diego Deals for 2010 In January, the San Diego Convention Center Corporation (SDCCC) introduced a simplified contract that guarantees convention and trade show space and rates 10 years in advance. We know of no other convention center facility in the United States that is willing to give solid prices for 2010. Previously, the convention center had, like many other facilities, been willing to make forward contracts of up to 2.5 years.

What prompted the change? Area hotels were asking for guarantees up to seven years out. The SDCCC sales team thought that any planner willing to make long-term financial commitments to major hotels ought to be able to get the same level of commitment from the convention center. The contract has some inflation-shielding terms: Square-foot prices rise by a few cents over the 10-year term. However, no other financial machinations are behind the policy--no forward buying of Treasury bonds or currency futures contracts. "We feel very comfortable leading the industry in this area," says Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the SDCCC.

Almost as innovative as the 10-year guarantee is the streamlining of the paperwork. The new agreement is seven pages long; the old one was 21 pages. The fine print rules and policies that had previously been included as part of the contract will now appear in a stand-alone publication, San Diego Convention Center General Policies, Rules and Regulations. The new process became effective January 1.

COMMUNITY BENEFITS Birmingham Harmonizes with Meetings--and More The problem with convention centers that host only conventions is that they can easily become distant from the cities that host them. A neighborhood populated only by convention-goers isn't much of a neighborhood at all. There are practical aspects to engaging the local community in convention-center-related activities: First, the community gets value from the facility, so local taxpayers aren't so quick to call it a boondoggle. Second, the community responds by having good services nearby: restaurants and business services that are competitive enough to serve the locals, not just conventioneers.

A fine example of this philosophy at work is the Birmingham Symphony Hall, part of the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Birmingham, England. The National Exhibition Centre (NEC), which owns and operates the hall and the ICC, as well as the giant National Exhibition and Convention Centre (NECC) outside of town, took a considerable financial risk when it built the hall in 1991. But the risk has paid off. Symphony Hall has not only been lavished with praise, but was lucky enough in its early years to have its main tenant, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by superstar conductor Simon Rattle.

Birmingham has been careful not to sit on its laurels, with further community outreach in the form of a program that allows local families to buy tickets for classical concerts at substantial discounts. The hall also derives income by hosting popular music events. This leads to a third and fiscally important reason for the NEC to invest in Symphony Hall: It smooths out the cash flow between conventions. From September 1998 through August 1999, 5.6 million people attended 877 exhibitions, conferences, entertainment, and sport at the NEC's various venues--a consistent level of activity.

WEB SITE Vegas Online: A Sure Thing Dow Jones and Company, who bring you the stock index and The Wall Street Journal, among other business services, reviews and rates Web sites at its Dow Jones Business Directory. Sites are rated for content, speed, navigation, and design. Only one convention center makes the cut with Dow Jones: www.lasvegas24hours.com/convention, where planners can quickly latch onto content that is not just useful but good enough to use as the basis for decision making.

What makes this site innovative is the completeness of its information. Yes, you've been to sites that have mechanisms for submitting RFPs, hot dates information, diagrams of the convention center, links to area hotels. But how many have information about conformance with the Americans With Disabilities Act? How many have direct links to such outside vendors as Internet and telephone service providers?

It isn't just that the site has lots of information and lots of links. It's the quality of the information that sets it apart. For example, nearly every listing for a service includes a mail address and a telephone number. For key contacts such as the convention center director of facilities, the site provides his name (John Tillender) and his phone number. Touches like this may seem obvious until you visit the many convention center sites that only list e-mail addresses.

Possibly the best feature at the Las Vegas Convention Center's site is the interactive calendar, which allows planners to pick a time slot for their event and then shows all the other conventions and special events that will be in town at the same time. The listings often include a contact name and phone number for the organizations listed, as well as an estimate of attendance. Even in a city that swallows meetings of 10,000 people whole, isn't it nice to know before you negotiate who else you'll be sharing the casinos with?

The only false move at the site is the "360 degree view" feature, which requires downloading a plug-in, and rewards your patience with blurry pictures of empty public spaces and meeting rooms.