Coffee and tea are optional, but don't skimp on the high-speed connections. Cybercafes are the meeting service of the moment.

A few good reasons to have a cybercafe at your meeting:

  • Attendees expect it.
  • It keeps attendees on-site.
  • You can make money.
  • Attendees expect it.

Cybercafes are a welcome service but, for the event planner, they're a major addition to the convention to-do list. Even if you outsource, as many planners do, you'll still need to provide direction to your cybercafe supplier. Unfortunately, there's no template.

Just consider the variety of answers to the most basic question: How many computers should you have? Plan on a bare minimum of one computer per 400 to 500 attendees for large association events. Then consider the variables. The more high-tech your audience, the more computers you'll need. And smaller groups are likely to have a higher ratio, for impact if for nothing else. For example, at the Computer Event Marketing Association annual meeting last summer, the organization supplied 12 computers for the 277 event planners and suppliers on hand. And when Jack Rouse Associates put together a cybercafe for Dell, there were 54 computers for 1,400 attendees. That's about one computer for every 25 people.

“Some of our attendees … can figure out a way to change those [default] Web sites.”

One key factor “is the break time between conferences, or for lunch, or before the show,” says Catherine Lyons, director of operations for PCIA GlobalXChange, the annual event of the Personal Communications Industry Association, Alexandria, Va. Lyons, who has had a cybercafe for the past four years, points out that the more break time — i.e., high-usage cybercafe time — you have, the more PCs you'll need. For her 16,000- to 20,000-person event, she provides 30 to 40 computers.

“We aim for a minimum of 10 or 12 computers at a show, for a visual presence,” says Anne Abbott, president of Tradeshow Multimedia Inc., Mayfield Village, Ohio, a provider of interactive products that handles PCIA's cybercafe.

Another consideration is how the computers are being used. If it's just an attendee benefit for checking e-mail, that's one thing. But if you have personal schedulers, product locators, floor plans, and other convention services, these will add to the time that people spend online, meaning you'll need a higher ratio of computers.

When you have those added components, you'll also need printers — don't forget the paper! Lyons has one printer for every seven or eight computers, so attendees can print out information on sessions or exhibitors.

Patricia Langfeld, however, provides a much higher ratio. Langfeld, vice president, marketing and development, for the Competitive Telecommunications Association, Washington, D.C., had about 4,300 attendees for Comptel's 20th-anniversary convention at the Orlando World Center Marriott. The cybercafe included 10 computers and five printers “to speed up the process and keep people moving, not waiting.”

Controlling Use

The next decision is whether or not to offer connections for attendees' laptops in addition to the cybercafe computers. PCIA's Lyons, for one, warns that it can create problems. While attendees typically use her cybercafe computers just to check e-mail or stock quotes, letting them hook up laptops “will have people logging on for long periods of time, which I don't encourage,” Lyons says.

Melissa Kelly, a producer with Jack Rouse Associates, a meeting design and production firm based in Cincinnati, takes a different view: “People monitor themselves very well. They're not going to park at the computer and ignore your meeting.” Jack Rouse Associates recently worked with Austin, Texas-based Vignette Corp.'s Vignette Village, where the cybercafe for the 1,100 attendees offered 12 “walkups” (workstations) and 24 “plug-ins” for attendees' own laptops.

Your software choices also help control usage. Lyons again takes a conservative stance: “Don't allow people to surf the Web, and don't provide any software that allows them to spend more time.”

Comptel's cybercafe, by contrast, is loaded with Netscape Navigator software, but “we haven't had the problem of people surfing the Net,” Lanfeld says. “Maybe other groups are different, but our people don't linger. They do their e-mail and move on to the next session or the show.” That may be her group's style or it may be by design: “Our cybercafes are stand-up. That's another way to control” the amount of time people stay, she says.

PCIA doesn't go that far to keep people moving. “Seating is helpful,” Lyons says. “People will be waiting, and you don't want lines forming — it looks inconvenient.” You might try it both ways and see what works for your group.

If you have a Web site you want as the default home page — yours or your sponsors' — there's another control you'll want on your cybercafe system. “We learned that some of our attendees are so techno-savvy that they can figure out a way to change those Web sites,” says Comptel's Langfeld. Computer supplier National MicroRentals, Monroe Township, N.J., which handles Langfeld's cybercafes, provides software that can prevent that switching.

Where to Put it

Cybercafes are usually in the registration area, on the exhibit floor, or both. Lyons uses both. “We have one cybercafe in the exhibit hall because we don't want people to leave to check their e-mail,” she explains. But because people like to check mail in the morning, before the hall opens, she has another in the registration area.

There are pros and cons regarding cybercafes in the exhibit hall. Yes, you do keep people there. And it's easy for them to head over to exhibitors whose names they print out. The downside is that you might use floor space that could otherwise be sold to exhibitors. Then again, with some exhibitors reducing their participation these days, you might be glad to have another way to fill space.

Be sure to have an area for computers and printers to be placed. Unless you're setting up in an area that already has suitable counters, you'll have to arrange for your service contractor to provide tables or countertops.

Plugging in

Connectivity is a big issue. Ask lots of questions about the facility infrastructure — and all the attendant costs. “Internet connectivity costs are higher than the cost of PCs,” warns Jim Clark, national trade show manager for computer supplier NMR. Avoid unpleasant surprises: Get all those numbers in advance.

“You could accomplish a cybercafe with up to 10 systems on ISDN or DSL,” says Clark. “For more than that, you'd want either a shared T1 or a T3.” Abbott agrees, noting that “ISDN is still an option, especially in hotels.” But she cautions that with ISDN, “You're at the mercy of a phone line that could go down.”

Michael Tydings, director of sales for TEC Communications, Centerville, Md., an application service provider for the convention and meetings industry, says a T1 ranges from $800 to $1,500, depending on the market and the facility. Up to 255 computers can connect to a full T1 line, Tydings says, but each computer also needs an IP address, for which convention centers charge $150 to $200 per computer.

In addition, there are PC rental costs. For the 10 computers used at Comptel's 20th-anniversary convention, Langfeld paid $2,084, she says, including her software, Netscape Navigator and Windows 98.

While you're asking connectivity questions, says Langeld, “Ask if they have actual phone lines or if you need to bring in a phone company. And ask if they supply cables and hubs. If they don't, your supplier can do that.”

Get Help

With thousands of people of varying computer literacy in and out of the cybercafe, someone is bound to have a problem. Then what? “You must specify on-site tech support, not a 24-hour line to call,” Lyons says. Clark at NMR has techs “roaming the area. If there's a problem, we'd have someone there in minutes. If it's a hardware issue, we can swap out — we have backups.”

It's all covered if you outsource. Says Lyons, “No one here has time to handle all the details, and we don't have the tech know-how.” For her cybercafe, TMI provides hardware and software, setup, and tech support, and even handles sponsorship sales. “It's turnkey for me,” she says.

If you don't yet have a cybercafe at your event, it's time you did. Says Kelly at Jack Rouse, “People are real time, and they want information real time. You're offering a service to keep people at your conference.”

And it works. Says Lyons, “I have 30 to 40 computers at a show, and every unit is always being used.”

Don't Log on Without It

At the recent BrainShare, the giant developer and customer meeting orchestrated by Provo, Utah-based Novell, the “cybercafe” consisted of 200 workstations scattered throughout Salt Lake City's Salt Palace Convention Center, including in the corridors. Without a control, anyone could have used those computers.

Novell's control was the bCard, a memory card that attendees had to insert in a reader to activate the computer. The bCard contains the same contact information that's on an attendee's business card — and more, depending on how you use it. For BrainShare, the card gave developers, customers, and other attendees access to on-site computers and also kept track of the sessions for which they had registered. People had to scan their card at the entrance to each session. Attendees could modify their session choices through the cybercafe workstations.

It's a “universal electronic business card,” says Will Cunningham, marketing manager for bCard Inc., Bethesda, Md. ( Cunningham explains that the bCard is a memory card, not a magnetic strip smart card. “A smart card has a processor on the chip,” he says, whereas a memory card doesn't have any processing power. “It stores information, and we rely on the card reader to do the calculations.” Currently, the bCard is used mainly for access and control, but the company hopes to sell it as an exhibitor lead card as well.

Sell the Screen

A cybercafe is highly visible and heavily used. You should have no trouble finding a partner to help defray the costs or even to turn your cybercafe into a profit center. You could have one sponsor for the entire cafe, or individual sponsors for the components — and there are more components than you might realize.

“Typically, it's signage at the cafe and a screensaver,” says Catherine Lyons, director of operations for the Personal Communications Industries Association's PCIA GlobalXChange, Alexandria, Va. Making the sponsor's Web site the default “provides a good focused sponsorship,” she adds. “We provide printer paper, and it can be sponsored.” Other possibilities: mouse pads, tear-off “stickies” for notes.

Lyons outsources setup and management of her cybercafe to Tradeshow Multimedia Inc., Mayfield Village, Ohio, and even has them handle sponsorship sales. She gives TMI her exhibitor list, and they take it from there.

TMI president Anne Abbott makes other sponsorship suggestions: floormats, banner ads, pop-up pages, ticker messages, and beverage cups and napkins if the cybercafe serves refreshments.

Says Lyons at PCIA, “We figure out our costs and build in a margin, and it's been a very easy sell.” Patricia Langfeld, vice president, marketing and development, for the Competitive Telecommunications Association, Washington, D.C., has a single sponsor for the cybercafe and charges $12,000, which more than covers the costs, she says.