Florida's Palm Beach County prides itself on being among the best and brightest in everything it does. Only the toniest retailers are found on Worth Avenue; CityPlace in West Palm Beach is an astonishing example of downtown redevelopment. And the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts is one of the most beautiful facilities of its kind in the world.

So when the long-awaited, $74 million Palm Beach County Convention Center opens on July 31, 2003, across from CityPlace and the Kravis Center, General Manager Ken Nelson says you should expect it, too, to be among the best in its class.

Funded by a bed tax, the first phase of the center will feature a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 25,000-square-foot ballroom, and 23,000 square feet of breakout meeting space. The 19-acre site will eventually include a 400-room convention center hotel.

Uplinks, Wireless, and More

“One of the ways we will expand … is through technology,” Nelson says. For example, Palm Beach will be one of the first centers of its size to have an on-premises satellite uplink. “We heard from Microsoft about the need to downsize meetings. Companies will want to reach 15,000 people, but only 5,000 will be on-site. The rest will participate via a broadcast of the meeting.”

High-speed wireless Internet is another hot button. Nelson began soliciting requests for proposals this winter. “It's important to bring to the fore the most advanced technology that we can. We want to make high-speed wireless Internet access, for example, available to everybody at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. Not just here, but if they're at a restaurant across the street, we want them to have access there, too.”

Nelson sees wireless Internet access as a strong potential revenue stream. “Did we consider the revenue? Absolutely,” he says. “But the convention center is being built with this philosophy in mind: Foremost is the experience for the client. The revenue comes second. We expect to lose $1.5 million a year on this building. But the impact on the community is more important.”

The center aims to make accessing other wireless devices easier as well. “Have you been in buildings where your cell phone doesn't work? It will here,” Nelson says. “If it takes installing a tower on top of this building, we'll do it.”

Data and Voice Convergence

Nelson is also excited about the center's research into IP/telephony networks. “In meeting with Cisco, we saw that data/voice conferencing is probably the future,” he says. “By using IP technology, we'll have a convergence system for data and voice. One of the advantages IP has is its ability to combine voice mail with e-mail and faxes in a single message. Exhibitors will plug their telephones and laptops into the same system. It will save money for the center and for the client.”

Nelson says gearing up for the technology installation has been “a huge learning curve. This Cisco media convergence server is a quantum leap over what you and I know about telecom equipment. … One of the things I liked about it was the low demand for space and the scalability to expand … at low cost. That's important because Phase 2 of our building will add another 100,000 square feet to the show floor.”

In addition, the new phone systems have video screens built into the telephones. “It will allow exhibitors to broadcast closed-circuit messages to clients in our facility or to anyone participating in a show,” Nelson says.

Besides the telecom advancements, Nelson says to look for meeting rooms with computer-controlled lighting and audio system, and boardrooms with the latest in plasma-screen TVs.

You can follow the progress of construction at the center via webcams at www.palmbeachfl.com. And a virtual reality CD-ROM shows what the place will be like when complete. “The center is pretty much booked from opening through June 2004. The webcams are intended to give planners confidence that we are going vertical on this building,” Nelson says. “I keep looking for new toys all the time.”