Heard of the "Y2K" computer problem? Most planners don't really understand it, but here's why they should.

Mid-March found Steven Hacker buttonholing congressmen, senators, and aides in Washington, D.C. The top concern for the executive director for the International Association of Exposition Management? Air travel safety at the turn of the millennium.

A month earlier, the General Accounting Office had filed a congressional report stating that the Federal Aviation Administration could suffer a dramatic computer glitch on January 1, 2000--closing down every airport in the nation--because the FAA wouldn't be able to purge the "millennium bug" from its air-traffic control computers.

"Our member are dependent on seamless air travel," Hacker says. "There's a growing concern that the FAA might be dragging its feet on Y2K compliance."

What is the "millennium bug," otherwise known as the Y2K problem? It starts with a decision made in the early days of computers. In order to save memory, and because they assumed their programs would be replaced regularly, programmers decided to represent years with two digits instead of four. The first two digits--1 and 9--were assumed. But lots of those programs have not been replaced, and at one second past midnight on the first day of the year 2000, those programs will, as far as they "know," be running in the year 00--that is, 1900. So what will happen? It's not exactly clear. Some computers will freeze like a block of ice, making data and software inaccessible. Others may cancel reservations or contracts or policies.

The bug is a gremlin with egalitarian taste. It can affect any computer that is not Y2K-compliant (although the more recent the model, the more likely its compliance), including computers used to handle air-traffic control, hotel room reservations, function space allocation, environmental controls, hotel room assignments from housing bureaus, travel reservations, and accounting.

It's not just a problem for MIS (manager of information services) personnel. Abdication by meeting planners could open an organization to liabilities. Some lawyers predict an avalanche of litigation regarding this issue. For example, let's say an exhibitor spends thousands of dollars to display products at an exposition in January 2000. But ventilation controls fail to work and the hall becomes hot. Attendees leave. The exhibitor decides to sue the organizer. Getting Y2K certification for the planner's organization and from suppliers, therefore, becomes the best safeguard against possible litigation. (See side bar on page 44.)

Fortunately, most industry suppliers are on top of the issue. Here's a rundown of some of their efforts:

Airlines: In early February, Northwest Airlines became the third airline (following KLM and Lufthansa) to say it would ground flights on January 1, 2000, if the millennium bug had not been worked out of various systems. The announcement raised eyebrows, especially when reports from the General Accounting Office were also released. The concerns were premature, according to Tom Browne, who heads up an oversight committee in Washington, D.C. for the Air Transport Association.

"Yes, we are concerned about compliance with the FAA," Browne admits. "Having said that, we also are working with the FAA and looking at its plans. The situation is not as dire as everyone once thought. The FAA has completed 8,000 hours of testing of its computers, and not one of them has experienced a single Y2K failure." He noted that the initial reports regarding the FAA's computers were based on dated information. Throughout the year, Browne will assess the FAA's Y2K compliance program and will have an industry report ready by November.

Being so dependent on computers for safety and reservations, the airline industry has pursued compliance aggressively. For example, Tom Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, says that the airline is in good shape and that its critical functions should be compliant by the middle of this year. He also noted that the airline is confident that the FAA will have its ducks in a row by January 1, 2000.

Hotels: Most hotels have tackled the Y2K issue. They cannot afford to do otherwise. "Hotel reservation systems and global distribution systems that are not Y2K-compliant risk significant losses in revenue due to failure of these systems to book hotel rooms. Reservation data could possibly be rejected if the 2000 date isn't recognized," says Karin Wacaser, spokesperson for THISCO, which develops and maintains reservation-system software and hardware. Beginning midyear, THISCO will run Y2K compliance tests with its 100 hotel company customers, representing 26,000 properties in 150 countries.

Individual hotel companies also are hunting for the bug. Hilton Hotels Corporation, for example, has been searching for its Y2K gremlins for more than 18 months. "There's a lot to do," says Joe Durocher, senior vice president and chief information officer. He notes that the company has begun to determine which of its computer systems are Y2K-compliant and to take steps to correct those that aren't. Hilton is also contacting vendors and customers with whom it exchanges data.

Hyatt has been knee-deep in the compliance issue for two years, according to Bob Bansfield, director of MIS for Hyatt Corporation, Chicago. All the chain's primary systems will be compliant by this month, then the secondary systems will be worked on, he says. The company plans to complete its Y2K certification process by the end of this year. Hyatt has also received correspondence from customers regarding its Y2K certification program. To answer customer questions, the company is creating a document that explains its compliance program.

Convention Centers: "Our customers have asked us to certify their systems as being Y2K-compliant," says Dieter Ungerboeck, president of Ungerboeck Systems International, St. Louis. USI has installed software in more than 100 convention centers, making it one of the most widely used vendors. "Convention centers have been booking meetings into the 21st century for a long time, so the level of awareness is high," he adds. In addition to making the software compliant with the International Standards Organization's (ISO's) Y2K recommendations, the company's upgrade includes a gatekeeper that prevents anyone from transferring data to a convention center's system from a computer that is not ISO Y2K-compliant. He suggests that everyone do the same.

Individual centers are also attacking the problem. "We are in the process of upgrading and replacing any system that contained the problem, and the new systems will be in place before we hit the year 2000," says John Devona, director of marketing for McCormick Place, Chicago.

Even small facilities are ferreting out the bug. According to Merritt Wolfe, vice president of information systems for SMG, which manages several centers in the United States, including the Centrum Centre in Worcester, Mass., "It is my objective to have all noncompliant building operation systems identified, along with the cost of making them compliant, including replacement systems if necessary, by June 1, 1998."

Planners: As these highlights show, suppliers are eliminating most of the industry's millennium bugs, but there's no MIS expert who believes that the cure will be 100 percent effective. They all fear that one computer clock or one software modification will escape notice. What would that mean for planners? Glitches will materialize mysteriously. Nor will all the glitches pop up on January 1, 2000. They could occur throughout the year. Some specialists predict that the glitches could arise even as late as 2003.

What is a planner to do? Start with the five-step program outlined on this page. By asking questions and requesting compliance certifications, you can create awareness and minimize the bug's impact. It's a matter of being forewarned and forearmed. *

FIVE-STEP Y2K PROGRAM FOR MEETING PLANNERS 1. Read. Computer experts have praised the book The Year 2000 Problem Solver: A Five-Step Disaster Prevention Plan (McGraw-Hill, New York, $29.95). The magazines InfoWorld and ComputerWorld have published easy- to-read features on the subject.

2. Get on the Internet. Check out Web sites for major vendors, such as IBM and Microsoft. There are a number of other Web sites geared to just this problem. Ones to check out: www.year2000.com; www.righttime.com; www.mitre.org/research/y2k; and www.microsoft.com/cio/year.asp.

3. Talk to your organization's MIS people as well as your hardware and software vendors. Ask if your equipment and software are compliant with ISO Y2K standards. Don't forget your homework. Be aware of any hybrid additions to your software, warns E.J. Siwek, a software designer and head of Meeting Professionals International's technical advisory committee. He notes that a solution for a general software program will not necessarily make corrections in any software added at a later date.

4. Work with your MIS people and attorneys to develop a questionnaire for suppliers--hotels, convention centers, airlines, travel agencies, continuing education unit fulfillment houses, housing bureaus, contractors, and exhibitors--to determine when they will be Y2K-compliant. If a supplier is not already tackling the problem, there could be problems down the line. Computer industry analysts anticipate a deluge of individuals and small companies bringing their computers to vendors next year, creating a shortage of experts and lengthening the lead times needed for correcting the problem.

5. Call several months prior to the meeting and make sure that various suppliers are Y2K-compliant.