The western and southern suburbs of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area are, despite the burst Internet bubble, still sprouting tech startups. Multimedia, e-business software, videoconferencing, Web integration — you name it, it's probably made in Bloomington or Eden Prairie. In fact, the American Electronics Association's Cyberstates Report ranks Minnesota seventh in high-tech manufacturing employment in the nation. It's a long way from Garrison Keillor's “Prairie Home Companion.”

Which means there's a home-grown audience for technology conferences. So it should come as good news that the Minneapolis Convention Center is set to nearly double in size. By January, an additional 200,000 square feet of exhibition space and 39 meeting rooms will be available. A new 3,400-seat plenary hall will offer three sets of tiered seats that can be rotated to create three soundproof, 450-seat breakout rooms.

The plenary hall will have wiring for digitized video, receivers and modems for satellite downlinks/uplinks (C-band, Ku-band, and digital), fiber-optic wire, and high-capacity telephone service (ISDN and T1). Each seat will have data and power ports and a table-arm.

The stage in the new 46,000-square-foot ballroom will have a 16-foot proscenium and plenty of space for rigging backdrops. The exhibition hall will have flush-mounted floor boxes on 30-foot centers with electrical, cable TV, and telephone service. Water and gas service will be available. Luggers of heavy equipment take note: The floors are rated at 100 lbs. per square foot — more than adequate for most exhibitors, but not infinite-load.

Meeting Whatever the Weather

Downtown Minneapolis has about 5,000 hotel rooms, of which about 3,000 are connected to the convention center by enclosed bridges. The closest are the 324-room Regal Minneapolis Hotel and the 533-room Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. A third nearby major property is the Hilton Minneapolis and Towers, the city's largest hotel with 821 rooms and a 24,780-square-foot ballroom.

Exploring Options

Convention Center managers are exploring options for exhibit hall connectivity. At the moment, the center doesn't have much beyond fiber-optic basics, according to Bob Whitney, manager of production services. “Whatever you need, we'll bring it in,” he says. At the time he was interviewed, Whitney had Cygnus Expositions' “Strictly e-Business Solutions Expo” in-house, which, with its digital security theater, telephony theater, and digital imaging theater, made heavy use of broadband. “Most meetings and shows bring their own stuff, but some are starting to use our fiber. When the new hall opens, we'll have fiber or copper Category 5 wire basically everywhere.”

Whitney is justifiably proud of his good working relationship with Qwest (formerly USWest), the local phone service provider. “We have been able to do things like install T1 service on 48 hours' notice,” he says. “We work hard to maintain the kind of good relationships that make service like that possible.”

“I've had to beat [wireless] vendors off with a stick — they've all come in and promised us total solutions.”

Among the options is a wireless network. “I've had to beat vendors off with a stick — they've all come in and promised us total solutions,” he says, but adds that there are still reservations about the capabilities of the technology. “We're holding back out of necessity right now, waiting for construction work on the building to be finished, but the tech people I talk to say waiting is actually the best strategy.” Sometime before the January 2002 opening, the center's managers will decide whether to take a chance on wireless. Whitney himself has long experience working with large-hall systems of all kinds, including a 15-year stint as production manager for the rock 'n' roll group Sha-Na-Na.