When you're pursuing a competitive market in the midst of explosive change, how do you find out what you need to know? Agilent's answer: Let a third party hold a conference for you.
To get a little, you've got to give a little. Agilent Technologies' Telecom Systems Division is a relatively new player in the Internet Protocol - Public Switch Telephone Network game. The company needed to understand how recently deployed technologies in IP - PSTN were faring in the fiendishly complicated business of making the Internet work compatibly with standard phone networks. As more people use the Net to make voice calls, the need to make networks designed for data and networks designed for voice transmission converge is becoming acute.
Agilent could have held its own conference and invited the major industry players: the Regional Bell Operating companies; the so-called "greenfield players," such as Global Crossing, Level 3, and Sprint/Ion; and the major vendors producing the gateways, softswitches, programmable networks, and the protocol integration. But without a high profile in the industry, the company lacked the market clout to draw the top people. And if it were Agilent's meeting, attendees would expect the company to promote its own products, and might not come with the thought of sharing information.
Instead, Agilent turned to an independent conference organizer. Acting as a sponsor rather than an organizer meant giving up some control over content - and a little of the spotlight - but getting a big payoff in terms of market intelligence and raising the company's profile in the IP - PSTN world.
Converging Interests Agilent's David Bonner, productmanager for Agilent's Telecom Systems Division, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, knew six months ago that the time was ripe for a conference on IP - PSTN implementation problems. In the March 15 issue of X-Change, a magazine for the telecommunications business, he wrote that "multimedia communications service providers are facing early problems in their migration to multiple service delivery. Many telephone companies ... are facing network engineering problems ... ."
At about the same time, an Agilent marketing executive in London had been in touch with the London-based International Institute for Research, inquiring about telecom conferences. In a case of converging interests, it turned out that IIR's Leigh Gilmore, manager of the firm's telecom division in New York, had been thinking along similar lines about an industry conference on making Internet telephony compatible with regular telephone systems. Would Agilent like to participate? Agilent's London representative agreed to make the company the sole sponsor for the event, and Bonner was named technical contact for the effort. Together with Patrick Ryder, senior conference manager for IIR's Telecom and Technology unit, Bonner went to work.
Bonner had made some small steps toward raising Agilent's telecom profile by taking speaking engagements and the occasionalbooth. But he'd never taken a step this large before. "This was a first," he says. "We needed to make a name for ourselves in this part of the industry."
Together, they went to work on the lengthily titled "Successfully Deploying and Managing Converged IP - PSTN Networks to Ensure Seamless Hybrid Network Interoperability and Rapid Implementation." They chose Boston's Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel as the site for the August 28 to 31 conference. IIR settled on a $1,595 fee per attendee. "We try to create business-to-business conferences that draw senior-level decision-makers," says Gilmore. "And we price accordingly."
From the beginning, they knew time was of the essence. "It needed to happen now," says Bonner. "It's only a useful conference when people are just getting on with new technologies. The leading network operators have had these technologies for about six months, so we're just at the point of seeing how it's going."
Research Mission Founded in 1973 as a newsletter publisher, IIR went into the conference business in 1978. Today, IIR claims to be the world's biggest conference organizer, holding more than 3,000 conferences a year in fields as diverse as finance and pharmaceuticals. Consequently, as Ryder explains, the firm knows what it takes to make a conference happen quickly: research, and lots of it.
"The producer who is putting the event together will talk to a complete cross-section of the industry - who's made the new investments, who is developing the new technologies, who's put themselves on the line to get things up and running, who's had the biggest problems - really, who stands out in the industry."
From that initial research, IIR finds out what issues will most likely draw senior-level people. The firm also learns whom these prospective attendees want to hear from. Sometimes attendees and speakers are drawn from the same pool. "This is a prime-time information exchange," says Ryder. "Someone like Chris Daniel, director of next-generation switching for MCI/Worldcom, is here at the conference to talk about the strategies his company is pursuing. He wants to hear from other players as well, to see if they've found solutions he hasn't yet tried."
IIR was able to turn to its formidable database of telecom executives to find the industry leaders whose presence would make the conference a success.
But, as Gilmore points out, it's not the list that makes the difference. "Developing a database is obvious," she says. "Anybody can buy a list of names. The science is sifting through millions of names to find the hundreds you want to mail to. That's our business." Ryder adds that IIR worked with Agilent's customer/prospect database as well. "We work together with them to do different waves of marketing. ... It's done very much as a marketing partner venture."
High-End Conversation The conference draws 50 senior technical people from a mix of established and new phone companies and hardware and software vendors. Sprint, Qwest, MCI/Worldcom, and AT&T are all represented. The attendee list bristles with titles such as "vice president of strategic planning," "senior director,VoIP services," and "director of standards and interoperability."
"We focus on getting the right people in the room," says Ryder. "Not just the carriers, but the technology developers and systems integrators as well - the guys whose job it is to make this stuff work together."
A special half-day workshop was added for those attendees who want to go into a deeply detailed discussion of network switching problems. The session is led by Bonner, who may be just a few years out of engineering school but who already holds three patents in wireless communications. IIR charges $995 per person for the privilege of sitting around and talking with him for three hours. (See "The Network Is Intellectual" below.)
"There's a lot of money riding on [Bonner's technical session]," says Ryder. "A switch can cost anywhere up to $7 million to get installed and working ... then there's all this back-office stuff that needs highly trained experts to keep up and running."
The conference is set up to encourage networking. There are Q&A sessions at the end of every presentation and 30-minute breaks between each one so that attendees have time to get into technical details. There is a long lunch hour, too. "It's definitely structured so there is time for in-depth conversations," says Ryder.
Ryder uses the conference to do his own networking with attendees. "I spend a lot of time talking to them while they're here, to find out what kinds of things they'd like to see added, or whether they have any specific projects they're working on. I try to keep my finger on the pulse as much as I can, although it can be difficult in a market that moves as quickly as this one."
Payoff: Research, Recognition, And More Did IIR's and Agilent's converging interests pay off? Did Agilent get the research and visibility it wanted as the exclusive "gold sponsor"? Bonner is satisfied: At the half-day workshop, in particular, he gets the insights he needs about how carriers are faring with IP - PSTN network interworking. And he's happy with the way the conference raises Agilent's profile. "We came here to sell Agilent's position in the industry. We're looking to find a leading space for ourselves, and it's through events like these that you make a name for yourself." In fact, Agilent got even more, because four of its executives were present at the conference, and they managed to do a little selling after all - just not from the lectern.
"We gave ourselves two goals," says Bonner. "One was to find five qualified sales leads, which we did. That was easy to measure! The second was, as I've said, to get Agilent's name known in this industry, but also to get it known at this particular point as the technologies begin to be implemented."
Leigh Gilmore, not surprisingly, thinks more companies ought to do what Agilent did. "They [technology firms] ... are wasting their time running their own events," she says. "People don't think their conferences will be objective." She thinks tech companies are constitutionally unable to stop themselves from selling, but that they don't do it in the objective environment that IIR provides. "Dave Bonner didn't get up there and say `Agilent, Agilent, Agilent.' I know he didn't because I have the evaluation forms right in front of me," she says.
"Agilent, as the sponsor, gets the raised profile, the workshop, and exclusive access to the attendees," says Ryder. "They are able to place themselves as being right at the heart of the market. The whole idea is to get them among the right people."
Just as research went into the choice of topics and speakers, so it went into the choice of city. "Our options are limitless," says Patrick Ryder, senior conference manager for IIR's Telecom and Technology unit. "But Boston was mentioned most often as somewhere that was easily accessible from all directions; a lot of the relevant technology companies are not too far away, either. People liked the idea of coming here. If you're doing serious business, which this is, you need the right setting, and I think that's why Boston was chosen." The small, high-level event drew 50 attendees from as far away as South America and the Far East.
No networked computers were part of the special "hands-on workshop" at the International Institute for Research IP - PSTN (Internet Protocol - Public Switch Telephone Network) Conference. There were, for that matter, no dazzling multimedia presentations. "If you're talking about highly technical problems, it's very difficult to replicate them in a closed environment," says David Bonner, product marketing manager for Agilent's Telecom Systems Division, who ran the workshop. "I show four or five slides to get the conversation going, that's all. The network is intellectual - we sit and talk. If nobody else talks, it lasts 45 minutes," laughs Bonner. "If they do, it lasts three hours."
According to Patrick Ryder, IIR senior conference manager, nobody left Bonner's session early.