TALK TO THE RESIDENT GEEK IN A CONVENTION CENTER'S tech support group long enough, and you're bound to hear something like this: “We have the scalable capacity to partition and provision multiple secure LANs, WANs and VLANs for point-to-point connectivity, so you can plug and play at speeds of up to a gigabit per second.”
Translate the jargon into plain English, and you learn what leading-edge facilities offer is this: Multiple ways to get more information to more people, faster and more affordably than ever before. The specific features that make this possible are really beside the point. What matters to an association coming to a high-tech convention center is how technology will enable its members to get more value from the meeting.
“We just know they give us enough bandwidth to get the job done,” says Ron Cravey, executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association, which brings together about 12,000 people for the TCEA Annual Convention & Exposition, held February 2 to 6, 2004, at the Austin Convention Center.
Whether the job is holding simultaneous educational sessions with high-speed Internet access, networking computers located throughout the entire facility, or giving participants wireless Internet access so they can check their e-mail any time, the high-tech convention center has the backbone to make it happen.
“What's underused is how much the building can live and breathe the association's daily message,” says Steve Morrison, director of information systems for the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which operates the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Says Michael Waxer, chief technology officer for the Washington Convention Center Authority, Washington, D.C.: “Think about it is as connecting everywhere, any way, and scaling to deliver what you need.”
Here are four high-tech features now available at new and recently upgraded facilities, along with examples of how you can use them to deliver benefits for your members.
wireless internet: Staying Connected
Everywhere you go, from the local coffee shop to an international airport, wireless Internet access is available so people can stay connected to what's going on at home and at work. Convention centers from coast to coast are deploying Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) networks for the same reason.
“It's an issue of productivity,” says Don Grinberg, FAIA, principal architect and director of the national convention center design group for HNTB Architecture, part of the joint venture design team for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which opens this summer. “People are concerned about getting the most bang for their buck when they're traveling. The ability to stay in touch is very important.”
The Oregon Convention Center launched a high-speed wireless network last year, making it the biggest “hot spot” in Portland. Basic wireless Internet access costs $6 per hour or $12 per day, payable by credit card when you log on to the network with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or personal digital assistant.
The metered service provides access at a speed of 256 kilobits per second (Kbps), fast enough for attendees to check e-mail. For faster access, there's a T-1 level service that provides 1.544 megabits per second (Mbps), fast enough for exhibitors to download large files and display Web sites. T-1 costs more but includes technical support.
The American Geophysical Union purchased basic wireless access as a value-add for 2,400 attendees at the 2004 Ocean Sciences Meeting, held in January at OCC. “Pricing is based on the number of IP (Internet protocol) addresses purchased,” says Matt Pizzuti, OCC director of sales and marketing. “It's a sliding scale, so the more you purchase, the less it costs.” AGU used the 10-to-1 rule and bought 200 IP addresses, so as many as 200 attendees could be online at once. (The 10-to-1 rule for ordering IP addresses allows one IP address for every 10 users, since not every user is online at the same time.)
gigabit bandwidth: Hardwire Maximum
Although some have predicted that wireless will replace wired connectivity, the most advanced facilities are hardwired for maximum bandwidth. Their infrastructure is a network of fiber-optic and Category 6 cable with a connection to the Internet capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or 1 gigabit, per second (Gbps).
This backbone provides point-to-point connectivity between meeting rooms, exhibit halls, public spaces, and, oftentimes, adjacent hotels, so you can transmit audio, video, and data anywhere your attendees gather. And every connection point has high-speed Internet access, so your message can reach a broader audience.
“We've seen a significant increase in demand for high-speed Internet,” says Ellen Barry, chief information officer for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and manages McCormick Place complex and Navy Pier in Chicago. “We layer on that network the other capabilities such as Wi-Fi.”
McCormick Place is one of a select handful of facilities that also has an Internet2 (I2) connection, capable of transmitting data at a speed of 10 Gbps. The Radiological Society of North America, an I2 consortium member, used the 10 gigabit bandwidth to simultaneously transmit a plenary session from the Arie Crown Theater to radiologists worldwide for the RSNA 89th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting, held November 30 to December 5, 2003.
“We worked with RSNA to put on a live interpretive session, multicast to an overflow audience in another room in the facility, then webcast to the Internet and Internet2, allowing people worldwide access,” Barry says. The live session was viewed by about 4,600 people on site, at least 165 people logged in on the Internet, and another 100 consortium members logged in on I2.
“We look at business solutions that make sense, based on what customers are looking for,” Barry says. “For the organizations that have service offerings that require high tech, we make sure they're covered.”
the plug-and-play: Easy Connectivity
The most advanced facilities are designed for multiple simultaneous connections, and they make connecting easy by providing data ports in the floors and walls at 30-foot intervals. An in-house technical support team helps customers figure out what they need to make all the computers, peripherals, and network devices work.
“We reach out to the meeting planner about 120 to 90 days out, review their requirements, and go over our technical capabilities,” says Janet Allen, facility manager for Smart City Washington, which manages the voice and data network and provides telecommunications support for events at the Washington Convention Center. “The show manager takes that information, relays it to the operations team, and compiles all the show needs — complete with show plans, booth layouts, registration area, information booth, and cybercafé — and submits that with their specs.”
This information lets tech support know what will be connected where, and how fast the connections need to be. Then, when users plug in, they're up and running in no time. The ability to plug and play helps control costs, even if late orders are placed on site, because tech support doesn't need to send out a crew every time someone needs another Internet connection. They can remotely configure and activate the ports.
Even the most elaborate setups can be more affordable. When the Trans-catheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics conference came to the Washington Convention Center last year, it held a session with live video feeds from operating rooms around the country.
“Because the infrastructure was here, Smart City just extended the feed around the building,” says Allen. “It was plug and play. It didn't require stringing new cable or running fiber. All they had to do was order a circuit from Verizon.”
virtual networking: Extending Your Reach
If you think hard about all the information passing between meeting participants by Internet and Ethernet, you may question how sensitive data is protected. A high-tech center can partition the network infrastructure into segments and secure each segment with a private user name and password. These virtual local area networks (VLANs) enable the center to host multiple events and keep everyone's information safe from prying eyes, as well as protect network users from viruses or other anomalies.“We create a lot of private networks on the backbone to segment the traffic,” says Michael Hall, network manager for the Austin Convention Center. “If there is one ill-behaved computer, we can isolate it.”
For TCEA 2004, there were hundreds of computers to monitor, including 16 computer labs running on Fast Ethernets and 300 exhibiting companies, nearly all connected to the Internet. “While the event is going on, they have a tech team that works with our tech crew,” says TCEA's Cravey. “We've never had anything come up that they couldn't help us solve.”
The center can even be networked with off-site locations using virtual private networks (VPNs). When Dell Computer holds a corporate event at the center, its Round Rock, Texas, headquarters is connected by a secure VPN that allows employees to send data back and forth over the Internet. “We become another room to them,” Hall says.
Given all the possible network configurations, and the problems they could create, the potential for cost overruns in technology and support services is great. Advance planning is the key to cost control.
“Technology is an ancillary service, so it's a cost center,” says Bob Hodge, director of the Austin Convention Center. “But the focus is to help the client have a successful event. We don't try to sell them what they don't need. We maximize what we can for their money.”
Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers the meetings industry as a freelance writer and editor.
Confused by the terminology of today's high-tech convention centers? Here's a cheat sheet.
Backbone — A permanently installed network infrastructure of copper wire and fiber-optic cable used to transmit voice and data signals into, through, and out of a facility.
Bandwidth — The amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time. Bandwidth is expressed in bits per second (bps) for digital devices and cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz), for analog devices.
Category Cable — The copper wire component of a backbone. Enhanced category 5 cable (Cat 5e) supports bandwidth of up to 100 megahertz (Mhz). Cat 6 supports a bandwidth of at least 200 Mhz.
Ethernet (10Base-T) — A local area network (LAN) technology that provides data transmission speeds of up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps).
Fast Ethernet (100Base-T) — Provides data transmission speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Requires Cat 5e cable to operate at its full potential.
Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) — Provides data transmission speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or 1 gigabit, per second (Gbps). Requires Cat 6 cable.
Internet2 (I2) — A dedicated network capable of transmitting data at speeds of 10 Gbps. I2 access is restricted to a consortium of 205 universities working to develop advanced network technologies.
T-1 Line — Transmits data at speeds of up to 1.544 Mbps. Can be split to accommodate several users at one time (known as a fractional T-1).
T-3 Line — Transmits data at speeds of up to 44.184 Mbps, allowing performance of more tasks simultaneously at a greater speed. Also called a DS3 Line.
Universal plug-and-play (UpnP) — The ability to plug a PC or peripheral device into a network, and the device will configure itself, acquire a TCP/IP address, and announce its presence on the network.
Webcast — Broadcast of an audio and/or video presentation over the Web in real-time or on-demand.
Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) — A LAN that uses the 802.11 specification to transmit data over the air. It includes 802.11b, which provides 11 Mbps transmission in the 2.4 GHz band; and 802.11g, which provides 20+ Mbps in the 2.4 GHz band.