In the race to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, no one is huffing and puffing any harder than convention center managers. A few years back they couldn't even spell ISDN. Now they're being pressed to provide the newest and the fastest to accommodate event organizers' needs and thus remain competitive.

Sometimes, meeting organizers have the luxury of choosing a facility that's that's perfect--or nearly so--for an event. Other times, serving the target audience means using a facility that is abso-lutely antediluvian. But wherever the facility is on the technology spectrum, it takes creativity, cooperation, hard work--and, of course, money--to pull it off.

Milwaukee Start With a Bang One sure way to upgrade a convention center: blow it up and start over. That's what was done in Milwaukee, and Kris McKinney couldn't be happier. For nine years, American Show Management (ASM), Portland, Ore., had to make do at the Wisconsin Center, built in the 1970s, says McKinney, ASM regional operations manager. But in May, she takes the Information Technology Exposition & Conference (ITEC) to the new Midwest Express Center, which opened in mid-1998.

ASM will do 45 regional ITEC shows this year. Often, at the regional level, the only facility with adequate space lacks technical capabilities. In those instances, "We rely on our technical partners to bring in the latest equipment and help us get an Internet line," says McKinney. In Milwaukee, three companies that offer those services--Internet Connect, Bay Networks, and Cablecom--have combined their capabilities. At the old building, "They brought in T1s and cabling and jetted it around the show floor," says McKinney. In return, the companies were publicized as sponsors, presented with awards, and given the opportunity to address exhibitors at the awards function.

At the new Midwest Express Center, however, "the building has T1s, cabling, and personnel," says McKinney. "They do everything from A to Z.

"A lot of cities take over service, but the cost is prohibitive," she continues. "But Midwest Express has been very nice to us." It also helps that all the equipment in the new facility was donated by Alpha Dot Net, so only labor costs must be covered. Consequently, "It's cost-effective for American Show Management and for the exhibitors."

Portland, Ore. Together Again for the First Time "This is probably the lowest-priced convention center we've ever used," Lisette Burgos says of the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) in Portland, Ore., the venue for SC99: High Performance Networking and Computing. The reason for the bargain: New York City-based ACM/SIGARCH (Association for Computing Machinery/Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture), of which Burgos is program director, partnered with the center several years ago to install permanent wiring, which has helped the facility attract new business.

In 1993, ACM/SIGARCH wanted to take the event, then called Supercomputing, to Portland. The show alternates between the coasts, and Portland, says Burgos, is one of the few venues other than California that can attract the event's attendees--computer architecture scientists and engineers. But OCC's wiring wasn't adequate. At the show, 200-plus exhibitors demonstrate their latest research products. "With so much high-powered equipment running at once, if we don't have the right lines and the right access to the outside, they'll crash," says Burgos.

So ACM/SIGARCH made OCC's facility managers an offer they couldn't refuse. They asked if they could put in fiber-optic cables and T1 and T3 lines, sharing the costs with the facility. Although the group has wired other venues, this is the first time it's returning to one of them. Says Burgos, "We can go back to that convention center at a very inexpensive rate because we helped them generate revenue."

Oahu The Five Percent Solution The Hawai'i Convention Center is "95 percent great," says Jalene Bermudez, president of Meeting Expectations, Atlanta, a full-service meeting planning company. "It had all the proper cabling to network 300 computers" for the Oracle Applications Users Group meeting last October, she says. "I don't know how many hundreds of phone lines we had. We put that facility to the test and they came through." Plus, "It's the most beautiful center I've ever seen--open air, lots of glass, plants, Hawaiian art on the walls. From a building standpoint, it doesn't get any better."

The facility also met all the criteria of her advance team. Sites director David Furnish needed 125,000 square feet of exhibit space, an area large enough to handle 5,000 people on a flow basis for breakfast and lunch, and a room for 4,500 people in a general session. "The Hawai'i Convention Center has all that on the first floor," says Furnish. "It was perfect for our program." He also needed flexible meeting rooms for 14 concurrent conference tracks. "But a large part of our decision was the staff," he says. "We felt their eagerness and willingness to work with the group truly in a partnership."

OK, OK--so what's missing? "The rigging points are every 30 feet, and we needed them every 10 feet," says Bermudez. "We made some basic assumptions that we shouldn't have," she acknowledges, adding, "If we had known, we would have adjusted our AV planning and room setups." Instead, to install the additional rigging points, "We had to break the fire sealant on the walls to get clamps onto the beam," adding $25,000 to the budget. "But that one problem can be overcome," she says, "and a corporate group wouldn't blink an eye at that $25,000."

Where do convention centers stand in the high-tech sweepstakes? To find out, Price Waterhouse Coopers LLP surveyed the major convention centers in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region for its 1998 Convention & Congress Center Annual Report, receiving 85 responses. Among the major findings: * 67 percent of the facilities have fiber-optic wiring available for events

* 59 percent have category 5 copper wiring (top of the line), 47 percent have category 3, and 33 percent have category 1.

* 61 percent offer Internet access

* 80 percent have ISDN lines, 52 percent have T1s, and 48 percent have T3s

* 61 percent offer satellite communication

* 56 percent have wireless technology

Denver Rocky Mountain Service You know how it is when an exhibitor loses connectivity, and you call the tech service, and they don't show up for three hours, and by then nobody's in the exhibit hall anymore, and the exhibitor screams that he's lost 43 key prospects--and it's all your fault?

Ron Crook knows. Crook, account manager for Conference Planners, San Mateo, Calif., a meetings logistics and registration company specializing in high-tech events, describes that as an all-too-familiar scenario. But when Cisco Systems held its user conference at the Denver Convention Center Complex last June, "It was a nice change from other places."

On the facility's recommendation, Cisco hired technology vendor GlobalCenter to install special wiring in the exhibit hall. Cisco had a large corporate booth; on either side were 20 kiosks exhibiting its own lines of business plus those of its business partners. "We had to network to 40 ports, distributing it like spokes of a bicycle wheel,"Crook explains. After the installation, "GlobalCenter was on call 24 hours a day for general troubleshooting," says Crook. "We had their cell phone number. But a lot of times they were in the building, just waiting in case we called."

Atlantic City Lessons Learned The Connected Classroom Conference and Expo "educates educators on how to use the Internet in the classroom," explains Carroll Reuben, CMP, CMM, director of professional development events for the organizer, Classroom Connect, El Segundo, Calif. At the event, there are 58 exhibitors, 297 technical sessions, and computer labs with up to 24 machines in each, for a total of 225 computers hooked to the Internet. "For us to install that many and network them and install proxy servers so they're not running dog slow, convention centers don't have that expertise on their staff," Reuben says. "We have to find a systems engineer."

When the event was at The New Atlantic City Convention Center last spring, the process was complicated by union regulations. Although only an Englishwoman would be gracious enough to remark that "the union steward was a nice gentleman," Reuben is unforgiving as she adds, "I had to pay a horrendous amount of money for the electricians to pick up the computers at the dock, bring them in, and lay the cable--I paid $38,000 for that. The facility is very strictly union controlled, and the union isn't technically capable of installing what we were doing."

This year, Reuben's event is at McCormick Place. "I learned from the Atlantic City experience," she says. "I had McCormick give me a flat fee. McCormick seems to be very willing. But I haven't found a facility that has a true systems engineer."

Apparently Atlantic City is learning lessons as well. A few months after Reuben held her conference there, management signed new labor agreements aimed at making the facility more cost-efficient and user-friendly. Some rates have been reduced and exhibitors given more latitude in setting up.

New York Growing Together As PC Expo has grown, so has its venue, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center of New York. Launched with just 10,000 square feet of exhibit space and 5,000 attendees in the grim old New York Coliseum, PC Expo, held each June, moved into the Javits in 1986. "The Javits was big, new, clean, open, and it had some space capabilities," says Mark Dineen, group operations director for show organizer Miller Freeman Inc.'s Business Technology Group.

But what about its technical capabilities? "Back then they had nothing--no building had anything," Dineen recalls. "We had to physically bring in wiring and cabling and hire a technology specialist.

"Over the last five years, they've made an effort to upgrade the technology," Dineen continues. "They've done a good job, putting in ISDN wiring, bringing in a phone company, satellite capability, wireless phone capability. In some buildings, if they're not set up for wireless, you can't even use cell phones in some areas."

Besides renting wireless phones, Javits offers exhibitors a portable wireless unit that transmits data up to 64 kbps (kilobits per second), plus "wireless LAN" that can go from 64 kbps to 2 Mbps. Says Dineen, "They're looking at what's needed to make it a tech-friendly, technologically correct building."

PC Expo, meanwhile, drew 550 exhibitors and 75,000 attendees in 1998, and this year is expanding into the "temporary" structure dubbed Javits North Pavilion. That could be a whole new set of challenges.

San Francisco Seybold Loves Moscone Seybold Seminars has a reputation for putting on excellent high-technology conferences (see "Guerrilla Guide Guys," page 57). It serves two distinct markets with its publishing technology events. On the East Coast, the market is traditional publishers of newspapers, books, and magazines, says Bruce Gray, Seybold's vice president and general manager. But on the West Coast, "We have more of a creative market using desktop tools." That market is primarily in San Francisco. Fortunately, San Francisco has the right facility: The Moscone Center. "Moscone works wonderfully--it's one of the best," says Gray. "The entire facility is wired for Internet access. We need that because a lot of demonstrations are done live on the Net." Another plus: "There are dataport plugs everywhere--every exhibitor is near one."

Moscone's fiber-optic network is permanently connected to GlobalCenter's Prime Internet Network via a fully dedicated DS3 (45Mbps) circuit. Setting up Internet connectivity is a simple matter of connecting to one of those ubiquitous plugs. And Moscone's in-house telecommunications division can handle phones, fax lines, and Internet connections with a single service order. Seybold is very nearly permanently connected to Moscone, as well. "I've reserved dates through 2010," says Gray.

Philadelphia Upgrading Parts and Labor "From a technical standpoint, the services the center provides all are top notch," says Terry Slingsby, technical production manager for design software company Autodesk. That was his assessment after the Autodesk Design World conference and exhibition was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia last September. There was only one thing missing. "The convention center has category 3 cable. The server was at one end of the hall, and our four 40-person, hands-on computer labs were at the other end, so we had some problems. But they're wiring it with category 5 now," Slingsby says.

Facility management is also addressing another problem he faced. "I had 300 systems to bring in for the computer labs and the exhibit hall. It's a union city, and a major headache is getting the correct union to help." One truck for the show was loaded with scenic pieces for the keynote address, AV gear for the lecture room and for the keynote. Says Slingsby, "I had to call the labor union to take the scenic pieces. Then the teamsters would unload the rest and leave it on the dock, and then the stagehands would move things to the lecture rooms. But the laborers were late--so no one would touch the truck."

Fortunately, "People from the convention center knew about the headaches and were up front helping and interfacing," says Slingsby. "They were awesome. But when the center people aren't around, it falls apart." But the outlook there is also promising: "They're redoing the labor contracts."

San Diego Lateral Links Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) moved its user conference to the San Diego Convention Center in 1997 because it was in a space crunch. There was a waiting list of 20 or 30 companies, says Wendy Warren, events manager for the Redlands, Calif. company. But by 1998, the event's 180 technical workshops and 180 paper sessions were pushing even San Diego's limits, and the facility's expansion was still a couple of years away. The only option was to use meeting space at the headquarters hotel, the San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina.

"We wanted to connect machines at the hotel with machines at the convention center," says Warren. That was accomplished through a partnership involving ESRI, the Marriott, and the San Diego Convention Center Corporation (SDCCC), which shared costs of installing fiber-optic cabling laterally. The SDCCC, which covered the cost of the facilities work, conduit, core drills, and construction, keeps the system and has the right to lease it to other users. ESRI has free use of the system for the next eight years in exchange for having provided the fiber, patch panel, and labor. The system is designed to permit future addition of coax, phone, and video, and might even be expanded to other hotels.

ESRI, meanwhile, is reassured that it can stay put close to headquarters, which is important for its event. Last July it had 400 computers of its own, separate from the exhibit hall, 200 of them networked on a server with a T1 back to Redlands.

Future Upgrades? Clearly, convention centers are learning to live in a wired world. They're realizing that the business is there--if they're prepared to handle it. Technology companies are holding more meetings than ever, and those meetings require more technological capabilities than ever.

And yet, you couldn't blame facility managers for having this little question nagging at the corners of their minds: Will their upgrades and innovations, like all other technological advances, quickly become obsolete and need to be replaced yet again?