If convention centers don’t offer robust Wi-Fi throughout the facility, it’s a deal-breaker for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. “We can’t afford not to have bandwidth for Internet access and cell phones,” said Stephen Lieber, president and CEO of Chicago-based HIMSS, speaking at the recent Professional Convention Management Association’s 2013 Convening Leaders conference in Orlando.
Wireless connectivity at meetings is as basic a need for HIMSS as running water, explains Karen Malone, vice president of meeting services at HIMSS. “If they want our show in their building, they have to provide it.” It’s a demand that more associations are making. As meetings technology speaker and consultant Corbin Ball, CMP, says, “Wi-Fi is the lifeblood of event communications.”
Part of the Bid Package
HIMSS is one of the largest shows in the country, with some 37,000 attendees. Only a handful of destinations can handle it, including Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, where HIMSS met in 2012, and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where it convened in March.
Malone requests wireless connectivity throughout the convention center as part of the overall bid package. Often, centers will oblige, but sometimes they make a counter proposal. If the center comes back requiring a separate fee for wireless, HIMSS is open to negotiating, but will walk away if the price is not within reason, Malone said.
“It’s definitely a cost of doing business to get our show into their city,” says Malone. The trade-off, she explains, is the revenue that the event generates for the destination.
HIMSS makes the same demand of hotels in the room block, including in itsthat properties must offer free wireless access to attendees as part of the room rate. Some hotels try to include Wi-Fi charges in resort fees, but HIMSS doesn’t go for that, nor will it accept tiered pricing for premium access.
Free guestroom Internet has become one of the chief demands of meeting attendees, and it’s something that more planners are asking for, including MaryAnne Bobrow, principal, Bobrow and Associates, Citrus Heights, Calif. If she can’t get it for free, she will negotiate into the room rate so the perception of attendees is that it’s complimentary.
Access Point Interference
When HIMSS comes to town, it tests the wireless capabilities of the facilities, not only because of its size, but the nature of its attendees’ Internet use. “We break records every time we go to a venue,” says Malone.
HIMSS attendees all work in the technology industry, and most walk around with three or four wireless devices—laptops, tablets, smartphones. That’s a lot of bandwidth.
But bandwidth is not the primary challenge when it comes to building out the wireless infrastructure for HIMSS. Both the Sands and the Morial had plenty of bandwidth to handle HIMSS’s needs. The Sands, for example, has 1 gigabyte and a second gigabyte as backup, which was more than enough. (HIMSS didn’t even use one-third of the first gigabyte.) The challenge is
There are multiple wireless access points in a convention center—units around the center containing radios sending out the frequency on which your Wi-Fi devices connect to the Internet. Hundreds are needed to handle a group like HIMSS, so Malone works closely with the telecommunications staff at the venues in advance to determine where additional access points should be placed to handle the high user density. “We’ve got 22 education rooms running at the same time, some with 1,000 to 1,500 people in them,” she notes, “so we have a whole lot of people on the system at once.”
So many access points, however, can create interference, frustrating everyone trying to get their devices connected. Since the HIMSS show, the Sands did a $1.5 million wireless upgrade throughout the 2.25-million-square-foot facility to overcome this by installing a new type of access point called an array. Each array, offered by Xirrus Networks, can handle about 1,000 users—the same volume as multiple access points, says Justin Herrman, executive director, IT, at the Sands. So instead of 20 access points to cover a ballroom for a keynote, only three arrays are needed. Upgrading the center with access points would have required a total of 1,500 of the units. Instead, the upgrade was completed with just 200 arrays, reducing labor and equipment costs over the long term.
HIMSS exhibitors are responsible for acquiring their own service in the exhibition hall, securing it through the provider at the convention center. This is typical of most venues. “They order what they need,” says Malone, because many of them want secure hard-wired connections, which are not subject to interference. The telecommunications staff can work with exhibitors to combine networks and share costs in some cases. Last year, about 750 out of 1,150 exhibitors installed Internet access in the hall.
If an exhibitor wants a wireless connection, HIMSS asks them to use a specific, separate channel within the radio frequency so that their signals are not interfering with the channel attendees are using in public spaces and meeting rooms.
The other issue is cell phone coverage. To handle 40,000 cell phones, HIMSS works with centers to bring in COWs—cell on wheels, which are portable units placed on the roof to expand the cellular network.
“We work closely with our telecom providers in each venue,” says Malone. “We rely on them as advisers and they are more than happy to help us.” Before this year’s meeting, IT professionals from the Sands sat in on conference calls with staff from HIMSS and the Morial Convention Center to go over issues and concerns and develop a strategy. The year before, IT staff from Orlando (site of HIMSS 2011) helped out in Las Vegas.
How Much Bandwidth?
Mostneed just a fraction of the bandwidth that HIMSS requires. Tom Grohman, manager, IT services, at SmithBucklin in Chicago suggests 1Mbs of bandwidth per 100 people as a good rule of thumb. In his experience, about 60 percent of attendees will have devices and 30 percent will log on concurrently at peak usage. Of course, these general rules can vary greatly depending on the group. With attendees that stream video, download presentations, and carry multiple devices, bandwidth requirements are higher. Grohman consulted on one event where the association gave attendees iPads filled with the conference materials, but the planner had secured only 10Mbps of bandwidth, which was not enough for 1,000 people with tablets.
The Garden Hose Parallel
“Think of bandwidth like a garden hose that’s capped on the end,” says Kevin Mattingly, principal at Paratus, a venue management consulting firm based in Phoenix. “Every time someone uses some of the bandwidth it’s like poking a hole in the hose—a stream of water will jet out, steady and firm. The more holes you poke in that hose, the less water will come out of each hole.” Too many holes, and it becomes a dribble.
Many planners’ eyes glaze over when talk turns to bandwidth, says Bobrow, who is also a member of the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange Bandwidth and Connectivity Workgroup. But it’s not enough to just turn it over to the IT people and let them take care of it, she says. Planners need to have a basic understanding of these issues in order to negotiate the best deals for their associations.
And if they don’t? “When the hammer comes down because something went wrong, it’s not going to fall on the IT guy,” says Bobrow. “It’s going to come down on the planner.”