For its Pentium Three launch at the San Jose Convention Center, Intel brought together 225 of its top customers and gave them all wired kiosks to showcase products that used the new system. Set-up and testing went smoothly. Then, with an hour to go before the press arrived, one of the broadcast giants ran into trouble demonstrating its streaming media site. The stream suddenly slowed to a drip. The images were barely moving. It was one of those horrible moments that can--and do--happen at even the most sophisticated of high-tech events.

The San Jose center's network installation vendor, StreamLine Communications Corp., stepped in to assess the problem. No other company was affected by the slowdown. Tracing the data's route using specialized network management software, StreamLine staff discovered that the failing was due to a fiber cut (known in the trade as a backhoe fade) near the media company's headquarters. They implemented a backup strategy and soon fixed the slowdown.

"These [problems] always happen with no warning, at the worst possible time," says J. Michael Sodergren, StreamLine's president. "That problem had nothing to do with StreamLine or the San Jose Con-vention Center, but it had everything to do with the [exhibitor's] success or failure. [Event managers] need to have the resources and people available on site to troubleshoot."

San Jose-based StreamLine is one of a handful of companies nationwide whose core business is installing and managing the technology needed for trade shows and conferences. If the vendor doesn't have a formal relationship with your meeting venue, these companies take their equipment and staff on the road, going wherever you go. Whether you want a cyber-cafe, an e-mail messaging center, or 500 computers networked together for a training program, they set up the required infrastructure, laying the backbone, routers, switches, and cables; assign IP addresses; and configure the computers.

But while the wiring is the visible part of their work, that's the easy job, say company execs. It is the on-site service they provide that is the greatest benefit to planners. Their staff will stay with you from move-in day until you unplug the last computer, available 24 hours a day for troubleshooting, using sophisticated tools such as network management software. "We're there to make sure you never have down time," says Dean Fuller, president of ShowNets in Raleigh, N.C. Minimizing the potential for problems begins way before exhibitors' crates arrive at the loading dock. A good company will act as your partner, helping you envision the most effective ways to use technology to accomplish your meeting's mission.

Waking Up Wired Of course that service comes at a price. If you have tech-savvy staff, why pay more for a third party?

Three weeks before the sales meeting he was planning, Steven Feinstein, director of internal training and expert services at Progress Software Corp. in Bedford, Mass., decided to create a "beach" at the hotel--an Intranet site where attendees could access conference information and surf the Web. Using the do-it-yourself approach, he rented the PCs and then searched out a local ISP. Long story short--at 2 a.m., just hours before the meeting started, he couldn't get the connections to work. It turned out that one of the cables was 20 feet too long, and would have needed a booster. Feinstein finally cut back the cable and got the "beach" up and running, but the process "was a nightmare," he recalls. "I said, 'There has got to be a better way.'"

The better way for Progress is ShowNets, which Feinstein first brought on board for the company's June 1998 users conference. That event required more complicated technology than the beach: networked sessions and break-outs, and a cyber cafe. A big plus, says Feinstein, was that the ShowNets team acted as the point people, making all the arrangements with the hotel's tech staff and the telecom company. As many planners have discovered, sometimes facility tech people know what they are doing, other times they haven't got a clue. No matter what the facility's infrastructure, or the staff's expertise, ShowNets shoulders full responsibility, says Fuller, for installing the network and delivering the technology Progress needs.

"We don't have to worry," Feinstein says. "Hey, we could do it ourselves, but it's much more of a hassle. [ShowNets] is definitely worth the price."

Design for Success While Feinstein has an advantage working with ShowNets because he is well-versed in networking, many event managers are afraid of the complexity involved, says Sodergren. But, he assures clients, 95 percent of success is in the planning. The first thing he does when contracted for an event is talk to the planner about the show's demographics. Who are the attendees and exhibitors, and what are their goals? Next, he polls a percentage of the exhibitors to ascertain their technical needs. He also adds his own tech request form to the exhibitor kits, suggesting exhibitors contact him with any questions or unusual needs. He then communicates those requirements to the show manager.

"For example, streaming multicast media is very hot," Sodergren says. "Exhibitors, who ordinarily worry about dollars and cents, are less concerned with cost than with visibility. They want to make sure there is press coverage and tie-ins with keynote sessions."

As meeting organizers know, there will be numerous changes along the way to a high-tech event, but a good network provider will work with you. Terry Funk, president, Priority Networks, Boise, Idaho, the preferred vendor at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and other facilities, meets with planners several times, using a map of the venue to go over how many connections the event requires, where they should be, what type of connectivity will work best. "We look at the [event manager's] design for the show and redesign it, so we feel comfortable with it, to make sure the show goes well," says Funk. "The [meeting planners] know what they want. We know what's needed to get it done."

Carry a Big Pipe Deciding what's needed can be tricky. There's a lot of misinformation out there, says Funk. For instance, a local ISP might offer an OC3 line (155Mbps), which sounds great on the surface, says Funk, but it's not a good idea at all if they can only provide enough capacity for a T1 line.

Make sure your network provider doesn't cut corners, cautions Sodergren. A company may, for example, suggest a single T1 line for 150 users. That would be sufficient if 25 people used it at once, but if more people jump online, service can be worse than if attendees were using a dial-up 56K modem. Providers sometimes underestimate usage and bandwidth to save costs, Sodergren says, but planners can't afford that risk, particularly, he adds, because the delegates at high-tech events have high expectations.

"These are self-declared geeks, who, as the lore goes, live on licorice and cola," says Sodergren. "They aren't always blessed with great Internet access in their native environments, but because the Microsoft logo is hanging overhead, their tolerance for inadequate performance is negligible."

The solution, he says, is not mysterious. "You need a large capacity Internet pipe and a great local area network. I wish I could make it more glamorous, but it's simple."

Another danger is that the computers themselves will cause problems. If you rent them for your event, you have no idea what's on them, Funk points out, and if something goes wrong with just one, it can tear down the entire network. As a proactive strategy, he builds a switched network instead of a flat one. "With a flat network, it's like everyone is on the same highway. If there's one car wreck, cars are backed up for miles. When we build a switched network, it's like building several highways, so if there's a wreck, only a handful of cars are backed up."

No matter how extensive your preemptive tactics, things just go wrong. That's when it's really an advantage to have people at your beck and call who love to track wiring mysteries through the dusty tunnels of convention centers. ShowNets sets up a service desk at events, where each problem is logged and a person is dispatched to solve it within a few minutes.

"They've been in crawl spaces I don't want to be in," Feinstein says of the ShowNets crew. Adds Fuller, "I'm amazed at how much there is behind hotels' pretty lobbies."

High-Tech Hand-Holding Those hidden insides are becoming increasingly sophisticated. To stay competitive in the booming high-tech meeting industry, facilities are rapidly upgrading their infrastructures. When more properties are up to speed, will network installation companies still offer benefits to event managers?

Basic connectivity service will be absorbed by convention centers, speculates Sodergren, but with the tech industry constantly pumping out new products, events will always require more sophisticated services. It would be difficult for convention center staff, who have other things to do, to stay on top of all the new technologies, adds Funk. Priority Networks is part of the Interop team and so staffers get early access to new products that improve convention service, such as a NAT, a network address translation box, which allows exhibitors and other meeting personnel to use IP addresses without having to pay for them.

But even given the stellar service he receives from ShowNets, Feinstein considered not using them for Progress' worldwide users conference this June. The meeting was held at the network-savvy Boston Marriott Copley Place and John Hancock Center. "Because of the facilities, we thought long and hard about whether we should use ShowNets or do it ourselves," says Feinstein. He finally chose to bring in ShowNets staff because it was much easier to have them establish connections between the two facilities. Again, he decided, fewer hassles was worth the price.

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, San Francisco; Denver Convention Center Complex; Long Beach (Calif.) Convention & Entertainment Center; Hawai'i Convention Center; Greater Columbus (Ohio) 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

Network installation 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 high-tech companies.

In addition, ask vendors the following questions:

* What is your core business? You may not want an Internet company that does convention installations on the side.

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

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

* What convention centers/hotels have you worked with? Are you the preferred vendor for any facilities? Familiarity with your venue's staff and infrastructure saves a lot of preparation time.

* Who is your ISP? 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/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? The vendor should 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.

* Smurf attack: That's when a hacker jumps onto your meeting's network. "They can bounce things off every machine in your show, eating up your bandwidth," warns Terry Funk, president, Priority Networks. At one show, Funk and his team allowed the hacker to take over 4 megs of bandwidth, waiting until they were sure they could nab him.

* Shoot-outs: High-tech buyers want to see products perform in real-world conditions, not just at an exhibitor's booth, says J. Mich-ael Sodergren, president, StreamLine Communications Corp. He suggests setting up shoot-outs, where the products are lined up, and attendees can try several at once and compare performance.

* Dongle: Every year event managers get a bit more savvy, but eyebrows still rise when an exhibitor yells, "I forgot my dongle." A dongle is the little piece of wire attached to an Ethernet adapter.