You could say that the 11th annual CommunicAsia99 show was a classic confrontation between fear and greed. There was reason enough for fear: The Southeast Asian conference business has, to put it mildly, been in a slump since mid-1997, when the region's economies went from boom to bust with alarming speed. According to the 10 member countries of the Association of Asian Convention and Visitor Bureaus, business was off about 22 percent in 1998. And Singapore, where CommunicAsia99 was held, had a poor 1998 indeed, with preliminary figures indicating that the whole meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions business was off by 50 percent, according to Kevin Leong, director of exhibitions and conferences for the Singapore Tourism Board.

There was reason for greed, also. Or, to use a polite term, economic optimism. It seemed that every press conference at CommunicAsia99 began with the sentence "With 60 percent of the world's population and only 20 percent of the world's telephones, emerging markets in the Asia Pacific region have huge potential." Talking to delegates at the show was a lot like talking to American businesspeople at the height of the invest-in-China craze of the 1980s: "If I could sell just one [take your pick: Internet account/cell phone/e-commerce concept] to every person in this market, I'd be rich beyond the dreams of avarice." Or something like that. It didn't hurt to have upbeat official pronouncements, either. "China will have as many as 10 million Internet users by the end of this year, up from two million at present," predicted Richard J. Barber, executive director of the Pacific Telecommunications Council, a CommunicAsia99 sponsor.

A Close Call As it happened, greed carried the day. Over the course of four 90-degree days (June 22 to 25), the exhibition drew 25,068 visitors--just slightly fewer than 1998's 25,300--who wandered among the booths of 866 participating companies occupying about 300,000 square feet of space. Each of CommunicAsia99's three, two-day conferences--MobileCommAsia99, Internet Business99, and the Asia Pacific Satellite Communications Council Summit--sold out, with more than 650 participating delegates. But the victory brought with it many anxious moments--it was unclear until very nearly the last minute whether anyone would come.

Room blocks, which were estimated on the basis of the previous year's event, were shrunk by as much as 50 percent at some of the eight official hotels as the cutoff date drew near, according to Tina Farn, a representative for Ken-Air DMC, the Singapore-based housing manager for CommunicAsia99. Then, just 30 days out, they had to be adjusted back up. "Reservations came in slower and later than previous years," she said. "The influx came only one month before the event."

Why the last-minute theatrics on the part of attendees? Show officials pointed out that when a regional event is held in a region that includes Indonesia and Thailand--two of the countries hardest hit by the economic crisis--attendance patterns give a true demonstration of the phrase "economic uncertainty." Ultimately, their faith in a happy ending was justified, with attendance by Indonesian delegates up 104 percent over the previous year, and by Thai delegates up 56 percent.

Show officials also said that they were confident that their relationships with exhibitors would carry the day. "When the economic downturn came, exhibitors told us they would support this show," said Stephen Tan, managing director of Singapore Exhibition Services Pte. Ltd. (SES), the show's organizer. (SES organizes 35 international trade fairs in Singapore and is part of the London-based Montgomery Network, a large, low-profile conference and show organizer.) "Lucent, for example, flew in 200 people from around Asia." In fact, more than 70 percent of Communic-Asia99's exhibitors were from outside Singapore, as were 31 percent of attendees. "We sell the world market here," said Tan. "Yesterday [June 21], Nokia held a global product launch at the show."

Interestingly, even though this was a tech event, online registration, offered by Ken-Air, was anemic. Only about 10 percent of delegates registered using the conference Web site. Farn wondered whether there was "not enough propaganda" promoting Web registration. In an aside, she noted that despite the high-tech sheen of CommunicAsia99, "a lot of work procedures are still manual and not computerized," in Singapore's meetings industry, not because of lack of sophistication, but because of budget constraints resulting from the regional economic slowdown.

Fear Strikes Out, Conferences Sell Out The main venue was the brand-new (opened in March) Singapore Expo, a 600,000-square-foot marvel that any U.S. city would be proud to call its own (see "World-Class Space," page 68). A year ago, the exhibition was split between Suntec City and the Singapore World Trade Center. While Communic-Asia99 didn't use the entire hall, the con- ferences used every square inch of available space and then some.

The conferences, although numerically small, drew senior people. "Delegates are here in part for the networking opportunity," said Michelle Morier, SES's upbeat (and at the time very pregnant) conference manager. "We have the CEOs of the major wireless companies speaking and attending." She said the educational component was definitely a draw. "The conferences add a lot of value. People in the region are hungry for information." The conference was able to draw on industry VIPs who were attending the exhibition as keynote speakers. American keynoters were particularly visible: Scott Erickson, Asia Pacific vice president for Lucent's Wireless Networks Group, had the spotlight at MobileComm, and Michael Houterman, president of Hughes Space and Communications Company, keynoted at the Asia Pacific Satellite Summit.

"We are using all the conference rooms, all the restaurants, and all the space we could get at the Changi Golf Club nearby," said SES's Tan. "It is only this industry that has so many meetings, sponsored lunches, and other events. For an exhibition-driven event, the meeting space requirements are very high."

In fact, there were 11 ancillary meetings beyond the three official conferences, ranging from a confidential Asia-Pacific Telecommunity Regulators' Meeting to a sprawling two- day, four-room session on IT careers. All but one took place at Singapore Expo. (The Telecoms Asia Readers Choice Award Dinner was held in the ballroom at Raffles Hotel in downtown Singapore.) This was a remarkable, given that Singapore Expo has only 19 meeting rooms.

If the three conferences grow much more, SES's organizers are going to have to improvise if they plan to stay at the exhibition site. "We had to turn people away," said Morier. This was due in large part to the last-minute rush. By the time it was clear that the conferences would sell out, it was too late to move venues.

No Fear of Cannibalization As is becoming standard in the tech event industry, CommunicAsia99 had its own virtual trade show on the Web. SES used the show to introduce its new virtual trade show service, VRcomms, which can be seen at www.vrcomms.com. The virtual exhibition lets visitors search for and purchase communications and IT products. At show time, there were 20 VRcomms exhibitors.

Tan, who was responsible for the physical show's success, was completely comfortable with the VRcomms idea, and predicted it would do much better next year. "There are about 25,000 people visiting the show," he said. "We've had more than 40,000 visitors to the Web site over four days. He has no fear that the site will cannibalize attendance at the show. "We don't believe it competes with the show," he said. "You still need your five senses to take in what is here. Besides, the live show can tap only 20 percent of the market. With the virtual show, the other 80 percent can exhibit, too." He said the VRcomms effort for CommunicAsia99 will be a model for other SES expositions.

The Convergence Factor Tan may wish that CommunicAsia99 itself could be a model for other SES shows in the way it has grown in scope and size. "The exhibitors are not just conventional telecoms companies," he said. "Cisco is here; Microsoft is here. Oracle is here. This is no longer a hardware show. About 40 percent of the exhibitors are involved in e-commerce."

U.S. event organizers may want to note that the TAS was an active participant at CommunicAsia99, as the coordinator of the Singapore Pavilion. Which brings up yet another form of convergence peculiar to Singapore: the close cooperation of government with industry in the development and promotion of tech events. The TAS endorsement was important to the success of the event. It didn't hurt either than the Singapore Trade Development Board was a big booster.

Government-phobic U.S. organizers may find this cooperation a little too close for comfort, but the truth, as Anu Ghosh, Singapore Expo's marketing manager, likes to say, is that it is this cooperation that makes "Singapore, Inc." a pleasure to deal with--even if the audience shows up late.

The readers of Telecom Asia (a publication reaching 21,000 Asian telecoms industry executives) were asked to vote for their favorite telecoms companies. Those who garnered the most of the 700 eligible votes were feted at Raffles Hotel by the magazine on June 23, during CommunicAsia99 in Singapore. When you're looking for communications technology partners in Asia, look here: * Best Mobile Telephony Carrier: Hongkong Telecom

* Best Fixed-Line Carrier: Singapore Telecom

* Best Internet Service Provider: Pacific Internet of Singapore

* Best Systems Integrator: Datacraft

* Best Regulator: Telecommunications Authority of Singapore

* Best Industry Executive: Linus Cheung, Hongkong Telecom

* Best Communications Minister: Mah Bow Tan, Singapore

* Hottest Market Segment: China

Cisco Kids Wire Singapore Expo For CommunicAsia99, Cisco Systems, Inc. installed, configured, and maintained a powerful network for the Internet Business Feature (IBF) area of the event. In an industry first, the work was done by 14 teenagers from the Cisco Systems Networking Academy program in Singapore and Thailand, under the supervision of Cisco engineers.

Eager to show its stuff to the Internet business community, Cisco built its installation on a Gigabit Ethernet backbone. The core distribution point was a Cisco Catalyst 5500 Ethernet switch equipped with 72 ports for 10BaseT or 100BaseT Ethernet connections. The ports conveyed access to the fiber-optic backbone via Category 5 telephone cabling to each exhibition booth in the IBF area. Linked to the switch was a Cisco 3600 router, which provided connections to the Internet via an E1 (European near-equivalent of T1) line into SingNet, the local Internet service provider.

This setup allowed exhibitors to access huge gulps of packet-switched data at high speed, including voice and video as well as garden-variety data.

The network was connected to a Cisco Catalyst switch that allowed 24 ports into a network operating center, where the Academy students, in their blue coveralls, watched a visual representation of the network and were able to make real-time adjustments to keep the system running at top capacity.

A tip for network installers everywhere: Cisco did not want any downtime during the event, and assured this by making sure that all connections had redundant hot backups (read: a second network connection ready to go at all times), and by installing uninterruptable power supply protection to every piece of active equipment in the network.

World-Class Space The new Singapore Expo has all the good stuff an event organizer wants. It has about 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, all on one level, in six column-free halls with a clearance height of 33 feet. Maximum interior height reaches 55.5 feet. At the recent CommunicAsia99 Show, Nokia, the Finnish telecoms giant, had a three-story booth.

The Australian designers, Cox Richardson Rayner, have created a long, curving building with towers rising at the beginning of each hall segment. Each tower has a hall number painted large enough to be seen from the air--and certainly by visitors approaching in shuttle buses or taxis.

A quirk of the design is the layout of the meeting space. There are four conference halls occupying a wedge of space between Expo Halls Two and Three, and six more in a round building apart from the main building (although still connected by air-conditioned corridors) that also houses the main registration area.

Each of the six halls has "service ditches"--below-floor corridors spaced 20 feet apart stuffed with fiber-optic cable and Category 5 telephone wiring. "The Port of Singapore Authority spent S$4.5 million [U.S. $2.7 million] for the wiring," says Kuek Chin Hing, director of business development for Singapore Telecoms' Enterprise Group, which did the work. "And a choice of high-capacity phone links is available."

The back of the hall has a large service area with plenty of room for 40-foot trailers to maneuver.

Singapore Expo is east of the city, and just five minutes from Changi Airport. Attendees who stay in the city center will have a "reverse commute" taking less than 30 minutes to reach the facility. Within two years, there will also be a dedicated stop at Singapore Expo on the city's MRT high-speed rail transit.