Here's a look at six associations that are tapping the high-tech communication opportunities at convention centers.

As convention center managers work to keep their facilities on the cutting edge of connectivity, they're finding associations to be valuable partners. Association executives can help identify technologies their groups require in order to meet in a particular facility. They also occasionally apply gentle pressure if they feel that facilities aren't upgrading fast enough; sometimes, they even invest their own money in an upgrade if they consider it to their advantage.

But the two partners aren't likely to be in sync anytime soon, in the opinion of Jim Mears, managing director of the Special Libraries Association, Washington, D.C. "Our association is on the cutting edge of technology," says Mears. "And in today's technology, the cutting edge is six months to one year ahead of what's available." That situation will prevail, he says, "especially if the facility is publicly owned. It's simple economics. To be on the cutting edge, facilities need to change their system every 18 months." And the public won't agree to those continuing outlays, he says. In the meantime, some association executives must find ways to work within the limits of what's available. Others are finding everything they need--and more.

1. Connectivity Counts: International Communications Industries Association

"We used everything they have" at the Orlando Orange County Convention Center (OOCCC), claims Bob Brown, and he means it. When Brown, who is vice president, expositions and conferences for the International Communications Industries Association, Fairfax, Va., took the INFOCOMM show to Orlando in June, "We had three separate intranets," he says. "We probably used five or six T1s and more than a dozen ISDN lines, and we had two LANs running." And that, says Brown, was just what show management itself--not exhibitors--used. (See sidebar below for definitions of technology terms.)

"The big benefit of this building," he says, "is that everything is in the floor and is fully interconnected. For exhibitors, that saves time and labor costs, and you don't have unsightly wires coming down from the ceiling.

"They have an in-house Internet service provider, VB Net," Brown continues, "so I don't have to bring in outside vendors for T1 or T3 lines. And they really understand the needs of tech shows."

Responding to attendee demand, Brown had VB Net set up INFOCOMM's first Internet cafe on the show floor. There were eight terminals directly connected via a T1 to an ISP. "People could check e-mail, surf the Net, download, and print, without having to carry laptops," says Brown.

OOCCC's grasp of the needs of tech shows will increase. "We're the first contracted event in the expanded facility," says Brown, "and they'll consult with us on the future of AV in the building. We're the association that handles that, so it makes sense.

2. Leading the Way: Radiological Society of North America

Prodding--and funding--by the Radiological Society of North America, Oak Brook, Ill., was key to upgrading connectivity at McCormick Place. (RSNA has met at McCormick for many years.)

Steve Drew, RSNA's assistant director, Scientific Assembly and Informatics, explains that when the DICOM medical imaging standard, which allows digital images to be transported and interpreted on any computer, was developed some 10 years ago, "Our exhibitors who manufacture MRIs, CTs, and ultrasound equipment needed to demonstrate that they could send and receive DICOM." But McCormick lacked the required bandwidth. "RSNA funded the installation of a fiber optic backbone in 1992 and 1993," Drew explains. "Once that was done, we ran cable from distribution points to the exhibit floor, allowing a distributed demonstration among 40 exhibitors."

Because exhibitors are so dependent on "a network that works," he says, RSNA does something unusual. "All the electronics, switches, and hubs are loaned to us by the manufacturers. We configure and pre-stage prior to the meeting. Then we plug it into the hall's fiber optic backbone."

RSNA consumes connectivity. It has some 1,500 active nodes during its week-long annual meeting at McCormick, including 200 messaging terminals for attendees. For exhibitors, "We make available 10BaseT, 100BaseT, ATM-OC3, and FDDI," he says. In today's McCormick Place, however, that's easy. "Exhibitors order this just as they would electricity or a phone line."

Drew notes that "McCormick has done a good job of retrofitting and enhancing a lot of the installation that we put in in a temporary fashion." Still, he has his wish list. "It would be helpful if they could contract for high-speed Internet connectivity. For T3, we have to use an outside ISP." Stay tuned.

3. Not Big Enough: Direct Marketing Association

Like many fast-growing groups, the Direct Marketing Association finds that only a few cities offer it adequate contiguous exhibit space, meeting space, and hotel rooms. But now another criterion has been added to the list.

"Access to the telecommunications we require is becoming much more important," says Tana Stellato, vice president, conference operations, for the DMA, Washington, D.C. One reason: "The main thing we are looking for is fiber optics with bandwidth that can handle many different activities at the same time. Our association trade show needs about 100 lines that feed into the major fiber optic line."

One venue where DMA finds what it needs is San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, where the association held its Annual Conference & Exhibition in 1990, 1994, and 1998. "Moscone has always done well by the planner community, forecasting their needs," says Stellato. "The first year we needed fiber optics--1994--they had it, and it was affordable. They now have T3 lines, and it's just a hookup charge."

DMA uses fiber optic lines to set up communication centers where its attendees can access the Internet, as well as to enable exhibitors to go online and connect to their home pages. In 1998, which she calls the "coming of age" of Internet use for her meeting, "there was a huge number of Internet-based exhibitors needing to go live online to show their wares.

"Most planners won't need T3 or even T1 for a while," Stellato adds. "But our president wants to be cutting edge. If it's about to happen, he wants to be the first to show it."

4. Outside Sources: Special Libraries Association

Special Libraries Association books facilities 10 years out. That means that in 1986, when it booked its 1996 meeting at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center (WSC&TC) in Seattle, it couldn't possibly have anticipated either its own needs or the facility's capabilities. As it turned out, WSC&TC in 1996 was "more advanced than some other centers, but not as advanced as we had hoped," says Jim Mears, managing director for Washington, DC-based SLA. That said, he has high praise for the capabilities and assistance of the staff.

Mears notes that he had to bring in additional T1 and T3 lines and get his own Internet service provider, but the facility staff worked through its local contacts to help him do so. "We hooked up to the Internet to provide online data services for attendees and used those in educational sessions all week."

A "vast number" of the 446 exhibitor booths needed T1s for their own data. Also, many headquarters people and exhibitors bring self-contained data files. "The key to technology today," Mears points out, "is being able to hook up to your own computer system back in your office and have instant access."

A highlight of the Seattle meeting was an appearance by Bill Gates, who used real-time Internet demonstrations in his presentation. "We worked very closely with Microsoft in setting that up. I have to compliment our convention coordinator, Larry Stevens, and his group," says Mears. "They're experienced--that was not an extraordinary thing for them to have to do."

5. Mega Network: American College of Cardiology

"When I move into a facility, I have a week or so to set up a million-dollar network that a corporation would take months to do," says Tom Walker, manager, network services and operations, for the American College of Cardiology. "I can't delay it, I can't postpone the meeting--and I can't fail. It's important to have a facility with the right technology and the personnel." Walker finds both at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

For ACC's annual meeting, "We rent about 150 computers and all are connected to one of three networks," says Walker. The first network is the messaging system, a service for ACC members, which offers real-time data access. "We set up at several locations and create a small network back to our registration partner." The second network links the booths or kiosks doing ACC-oriented projects, including the "Information at ACC" center, with 45 computers connected to the Internet, and the Web-based job-placement service, with 20-plus Internet-connected computers. The third network is administrative.At Morial, ACC used a T1 line to connect that network to its Bethesda, Md., headquarters.

"We use every technology Morial has," Walker adds. "We rent their fiber optic technology. They have a direct Internet connection, and we wanted them to dedicate a percentage of that to us--no problem. We have unique time requirements--no problem. And they work well with show management; they don't nickel-and-dime us. Of the four convention centers we use, this is my favorite to work with."

6. Kiosk Magic: Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine

"I've never been offered that before," says Cordie Miller, director of meetings for the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in Berkeley, Calif.

What was the innovative offering? The stand-alone e-mail kiosks that were available in the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia when ISMRM held its 7th Scientific Meeting & Exhibition there last May. The center has a tech services department that "specializes in connectivity," says Miller. "There's a flat price per kiosk, including a T1 line. Kiosks are totally mobile--they can be hooked up anywhere in the building. The tech services department monitors them to be sure they stay hooked up, and they accept responsibility for any theft."

As if that weren't enough, the opening screen can be tailored to a specific event, and a show's or company's Web site can be put up. In addition, for ISMRM, "They put our CD-ROM into the CPU," Miller says.

"I normally have to rent kiosks, get an Internet service provider, and arrange for the T1 line," she continues. "But in Philadelphia, I paid a flat price and the kiosks magically appeared and were magically taken care of. It was fantastic--and one less thing I had to worry about."

Some Help for the Terminology-Challenged Technology changes so rapidly that keeping up is a challenge, even for a geek. For a newbie, it's a major struggle.

Fortunately, help is available on two Web sites: http://webopedia.com and http://whatis.com. Both sites include searchable glossaries and, with each definition, links to related terms and helpful articles. In general--though not always--Webopedia.com provides basic definitions in the simplest possible terms, and definitions at whatis.com are more comprehensive and more advanced.

Following are excerpts from definitions of frequently used terms as found on those two sites.

* Bandwidth: The amount of data that can be transmitted in a fixed amount of time. For digital devices, the bandwidth is usually expressed in bits per second (bps) or bytes per second.(webopedia.com)

* Fiber optic: Fiber optic (or "optical fiber") refers to the medium and the technology associated with the transmission of information as light impulses along a glass or plastic wire or fiber. Fiber optic wire carries much more information than conventional copper wire and is far less subject to electromagnetic interference. (whatis.com)

* ISDN: Abbreviation of Integrated Services Digital Network, an international communications standard for sending voice, video, and data over digital telephone lines. ISDN requires special metal wires, and supports data transfer rates of 64 Kbps (64,000 bits per second).

(webopedia.com) * ISP: An ISP (Internet service provider) is a company that provides individuals and other companies access to the Internet and other related services such as Web site building and hosting. (whatis.com)

* T1 carrier, T3 carrier: T1 is a dedicated phone connection supporting data rates of 1.544Mbits per second. T3 is a dedicated phone connection supporting data rates of about 43 Mbps. (webopedia.com)

Definitions copyrighted and used with permission of webopedia.com and whatis.com.

Picking a Partner Some associations work with network installation companies to help them set up shows that demand a lot of connectivity. These types of companies are a relatively new kind of business. To find one with the expertise and service you need, start with the obvious--get references from other show organizers who have high-tech communication needs.

Once you find some vendors through referrals, you can help narrow the field by asking them the following questions: * What is your core business? (You may not want an Internet company that does convention installations only on the side.)

* How many staff people will be assigned to my event?

* What is your technical expertise? Do you have experience with Windows 95, 98, NT, Novell, Macintosh; flat and hub Ethernet networks; and connecting wide area networks to local area networks?

* What convention centers and hotels have you worked with? Are you the preferred vendor for any facilities? (Familiarity with your venue's staff and the facility infrastructure can end up saving a lot of preparation time.)

* Who is your Internet service provider? (Quality vendors tend to work with one ISP, no matter where they go, which ensures you get consistent, reliable service.)

* What equipment will you bring on site?( Whether the vendors prefer to own or rent their equipment, they should bring any equipment and tools needed to install and oversee your technology requirements. For example, make sure vendors bring network management--troubleshooting--software on site.)

* What customer service do you provide ? (A good vendor will work with you from the planning stage, accompany you on the site visit, arrive three to four days ahead of the show's opening for setup, and provide round-the-clock service during the event.)

Vendor Sampler: StreamLine Communications Corp., San Jose, Calif. * Preferred vendor for the San Jose Convention Center; clients include Intel, Microsoft, Apple

* Contact: J. Michael Sodergren, president

* (408) 437-7730

* msodergren@streamlinecom.com

* www.streamlinecom.com

ShowNets, Raleigh, N.C. * Preferred vendor for Los Angeles Convention Center; clients include Progress Software Corp., Advanstar, Compaq

* Contact: Dean Fuller, president

* (919) 844-3725 dfuller@shownets.net

* www.shownets.net

PriorityNetworks, Boise, Idaho * Preferred vendor for Moscone Center, Denver Convention Center; Long Beach Convention Center; Hawai'i Convention Center; Greater Columbus Convention Center; conferences served include Windows CE, Real Networks, JAVA One

* Contact: Terry Funk, president;

(888) 640-1363

* terry.funk@prioritynetworks.net

* www.prioritynetworks.net