by Mark Cooper | August 25, 2017

Mark CooperIt strikes me that for all the research and conversations about technologies for meetings, and for all the new innovative ways we can connect with our delegates and audiences in and outside of meetings, we are missing something. We are missing something big: Internet infrastructure.

For meeting planners, I expect the pregame goes something like this: Conference app -- check; audience polling -- check; event hashtag and social-media campaign -- check; delegate feedback -- check; slide sharing -- check; email access for delegates -- check. Every day, the list gets longer and longer.

But when it comes to evaluating the venue for its connection capabilities, I fear we are not giving the Internet infrastructure the time or respect it deserves. Equally, I fear that venues are not well prepared to evaluate whether they can support the needs of the event, due to a lack of understanding.

The importance of the Internet to meeting planners has been made clear over the last two years through the IACC Meeting Room of the Future research, in which 58 percent of meeting organizers said they would not consider shortlisting a venue that did not offer a guaranteed Internet capacity for their event. So, let’s think about this for a moment. What forms of guarantee are available to meeting planners, and how often do we see them in practice?

I used to talk about Internet in terms of Mbps (Megabits per second) and about how easy it was to evaluate different areas of a venue with a simple app like Speedchecker for iOS. Although I am still surprised at how many venue representatives I see who now can tell me the Mbps on offer in the meeting areas, I have come to learn that this no longer a good enough barometer for judging whether the venue will be able to handle the activity of a large group. It is not all about the bandwidth, it’s about the infrastructure, too.

What is network infrastructure (particularly wireless network infrastructure), and why does it matter to meeting planners? To put it simply, infrastructure refers to the venue’s network equipment and how effective it is at distributing the bandwidth to the many wireless devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones. A respected colleague, Matt Harvey from PSAV, tells me that generally the newer the infrastructure, the more users can do with the Internet at one time. The challenge for anyone evaluating a venue for an event is that it is not possible to look at Internet infrastructure in the way we look at other services and facilities to judge suitability.

If the infrastructure is older or there are too many users, it won’t matter how much bandwidth there is — delegates will get bogged down. With meetings relying more and more on critical collaboration technologies like delegate-polling working properly and quickly, it is now time for both parties to treat this need seriously.

Internet requirements should be a priority your RFPs. Asking venues to provide detailed information on bandwidth, infrastructure and support in venue bids is a smart move. It is also important to compile attendees' usage stats post-event, to help specify your group's minimum requirements for next time.

Here are four questions planners should ask:

1. Is your Internet infrastructure managed internally by staff on-site, or outsourced and managed remotely? The former is better for close event support.
2. Has your WiFi hardware (and access points) been updated within the past two years?
3. Will you be able to provide usage reports for our event?
4. Does the venue have IT support as well as A/V support for clients?

Meeting with an IT technician is by far the best way to fully understand the capabilities and restrictions of the venue's system.

At some point, I hope the industry will find a way to present the Internet infrastructure of small- and medium-size venues in a way that meeting planners can understand and evaluate — maybe even a rating system. In the meantime, IACC has a free broadband estimator to give basic information on required speeds, which certainly is a good start.

It’s time to raise our game and understand that Internet access can make or break our meeting objectives depending on whether it can cope with our increased needs.

Mark Cooper is the CEO of IACC , formerly known as International Association of Conference Centres, whose members form a community of passionate people and organizations delivering innovative and exceptional meeting experiences. Find the group on Twitter at @IACCmeetings.