Floor-load capacities, ceiling heights, and meeting and exposition space were once the critical factors when selecting a convention center. Today, many planners are adding another criterion to the list: telecommunications capabilities. No less than any other business medium, trade shows are being transformed by the Internet, videoconferencing, and even virtual reality as show managers and exhibitors strive to enhance the tradeshow experience.

How are convention centers responding? "There may be a hiccup between the technology that is readily out there in the world, and being able to equip facilities with the same," cautions John Swinburne, executive director, International Association of Assembly Managers, based in Irving, TX. "Facilities may or may not be financially equipped to do it all at once, or even incrementally."

Indeed, just as hotel management companies are struggling with the high cost of retrofitting existing facilities to accommodate the technology needs of today's business traveler and meeting organizer, convention centers are looking at similar costly investments. But, says Morris Pettit, president of Expotel, a Seattle-based firm that works with convention centers and hotels to market themselves as high-tech facilities, "Any facility can be high tech. They just need someone to facilitate the technology for them."

Among those destinations that see their future smack in the middle of the information superhighway are Atlantic City and Washington DC, both of which have convention centers under development.

Opening in the spring of 1997 with 500,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Atlantic City Convention Center is being marketed as having one of the best technologically equipped facilities in the country. With $1.6 million from Bell Atlantic and $3.2 million from the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, the Atlantic City Convention Center purchased a state-of-the-art "backbone" that includes fiber optics and category 5 copper wiring for higher bandwidth applications (like transmission of graphics) to all floor boxes, meeting rooms, and prefunction spaces. Finishing touches include an executive-level presentation room with full voice, video, and data communications comparable to a corporate headquarters setting, as well as integrated cellular technology so that even on the interference-prone convention floor, an association manager or exhibitor on a cellular phone can get a clear line to the outside world.

Set to open in 2000, with groundbreaking scheduled for December, the new Washington, DC Convention Center has employed technical focus groups to determine what its new technology should be. Contributing to that input, Ron Pobuda, president of National Audio Video, New York City, says the basic question is "How can we plug into the world?"

He believes fiber optics will provide the primary internal information pathways, satellite dishes on the roof will bring in data worldwide, and most bulky hardware like audiovisual will be built in, since it's all based in computer chips and easily updated.

Meanwhile, Oregon's Portland Convention Center (which opened in 1990) and the Austin Convention Center in Texas (debuting in 1992) were two of the first facilities wired "from the ground up" for more sophisticated telecommunications. (Austin remains one of the few to offer a separate telecommunications capabilities brochure to show managers.) But retrofitting and upgrading are constants in structures like Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center, Chicago's McCormick Place and Navy Pier, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Orlando's Orange County Convention Center, Salt Lake City's Salt Palace Convention Center, Seattle's Washington State Convention Center, and the San Diego Convention Center.

Even a small venue like the City of Montgomery (AL) Civic Center is unique in that its director Hugh Austin wired the whole facility himself, using off-the-shelf technology. "This is my dog-and-pony show," Austin says. "We couldn't afford to have a company come in and do it for us, but I have a strong enough grasp of the technology to be able do it."

Services Offered Now that they have their technology in place, some of the leading-edge convention centers, including Austin, McCormick Place, and the Georgia World Congress Center, are putting work orders for high-tech connection in their regular exhibitor packets.

For example, the Georgia World Congress includes documents to order telephone service, voice mail, and high-speed data connections. In New Orleans, Greg Guillot, MIS manager for the city's convention center, says exhibitor forms for electrical, plumbing, telephones, and soon the Internet will be in the booth and all on the same bill.

Moreover, several centers, including those in Atlanta, Portland, Orlando, Austin, and the two locations in Chicago, have their own sites on the World Wide Web. Most use them primarily for outgoing public information, but anticipate future Web expansion.

For instance, McCormick Place plans "to process orders and provide other interactive information," according to Mike Sullivan, telecommunications manager. Orlando intends to provide incoming access for information exchange with its marketing department. The Georgia World Congress Center already has an active e-mail address on its Web page, and will offer telecommunications ordering and attendee registration services within the next 12 to 18 months.

Local access networks and Internet connectivity for e-mail and World Wide Web sites are the most common special telecommunications requests from exhibitors, say facility managers. Some show managers take matters into their own hands.

In McCormick Place, the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) sponsored an "Internet Cafe," where visitors could browse the Internet as they enjoyed a cup of coffee. At the Austin Convention Center, the Department of Veteran Affairs Information Technology Conference set up a "virtual office" in four "pods," or clusters, so that attendees could communicate with their home offices as they sat down and ate their lunches.

In San Diego during the Republican Convention, which billed itself as the "highest-tech political event ever," (as quoted in the Los Angeles Times) wireless telephone service was the big news. Five hundred units went to VIPs like Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and members of the Secret Service. Scores of digital conversations beamed over the radio spectrum from the San Diego Convention Center and its environs, which showcased Pacific Bell Mobile Services' $700 million wireless network stretching from California to Nevada. Previously retrofitted with $390,000 worth of fiber-optic cables in preparation for Supercomputing '95, a high-tech computing conference, the center used its own connective capabilities for GOP-related satellite uplink and downlink, Internet access, multimedia teleconferencing, and high-speed data transmission.

One of the key benefits of the telecommunications revolution "might be a major show in one city with a direct link to other cities . . . so that those who can't make it to the city and center can participate," suggests IAAM's Swinburne.

Proving there's no one "right way" to provide technology access, most convention centers either offer single-source connectivity, or open the door to all independent providers. For example, McCormick Place, which will be the largest convention center in the nation with 2.2 million square feet of exhibition space when its new South Hall opens in January 1997, has an ongoing relationship with Ameri-tech as dial-tone provider, and Red Sky Technology for Internet Services. At the Georgia World Congress Center, BellSouth is on site, while the Morial Center in New Orleans acts as its own telephone company.

In contrast, "We are looking for outside providers to partner with on high-end needs and don't anticipate any exclusive arrangements," says John Daich, assistant general manager and director of finance for the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. The convention centers in Portland, OR; Seattle; and San Diego work in much the same fashion as Salt Lake City.

Costs Coming Down One of the key benefits of the telecommunications revolution "might be a major show in one city with a direct link to other cities . . . so that those who can't make it to the city and center can participate," suggests IAAM's Swinburne.

At the Medical Trade National Home Health Care Exposition in Atlanta in 1994, the first use of teleconferencing using a powerful T1 digital transmission connection proved Swinburne's point. Guardian Products had a hookup to its headquarters in Simi Valley, CA. When a salesman on the convention floor couldn't answer an attendee's question, imagine the visitor's surprise when he heard a voice from a computer screen saying words to the effect, "Excuse me, can I help you?" Whirling around and facing his off-site service representative, the attendee repeated his question, got the answer, and placed his order from the booth to the Guardian headquarters, 2,500 miles away.

The cost for that sophisticated hookup was $12,000, according to Walter Wilson, district operations manager for BellSouth. "If we were doing it today, it would cost about half that amount," he says. Wilson says that one of the reasons for the steep price-drop is the ability of the center to use less costly ISDN transmission lines rather than the more powerful and expensive T1 lines, and get "close enough to the same quality."

Demand for such specialized services naturally varies by show. "Sixty-five to 70 percent have some type of telecommunications requirements like Internet, networking, or videoconferencing," says Robert Walker, event services manager of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

At a typical commercial event like the Store Fixturing Show in McCormick Place, 30 percent of exhibitors used high-tech capabilities like Internet access and CD-ROM in booths, while show management offered touch-screen technology and motion-sensitive/voice-activated messaging in the public areas (where you might walk down an aisle and a shelf would "sense" your presence and speak to you), according to the show's producer, Doug Hope.

How much does it cost for a typical exhibitor to use the high-tech capabilities of the convention center? Most charge a basic fee per show for the Internet connection, then add on costs for other components and labor. For example, Michael Hall, network manager for the Austin Convention Center, charges $250 per show for an Internet port to an individual exhibitor. If it's a high-tech event like the Texas Computer Education Show, the center charges the association a flat rate of $2,500 for a network that includes a specified number of computer addresses, and bills additionally for the internetworking of hubs, switches, and labor.

In Chicago's McCormick Place, "prices range from $500 per exhibitor hookup for a basic dial-up unit and workstation to $1,200 and up for dedicated service or a network offering more Internet addresses," according to Paula Graller, the center's telecommunications manager. As an independent provider, Morris Pettit says Expotel's costs to exhibitors range from $600 to $2,500 for T1 access.

If only a small percentage of users take advantage of these high-tech capabilities, does it pay for centers to make the investment? "Many nontechnical trade shows and conferences need enhanced technology that didn't exist a few years ago," states Don Engler, director of marketing for the Morial Center in New Orleans.

"As show managers become more sophisticated in the way they want to communicate, they're going to demand that service from the facilities in order to operate their events," says Daich of the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.