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November 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Built to Spec November 1998 Current Issue
November 1998
ALL SYSTEMS GO

Can the facility you've chosen handle your show's technical needs? Here's how to size up its capabilities

BY SARAH J.F. BRALEY

We've got you going to our Internet tier-2 provider on a T-3 line, which is 45 megabits. And that tier-2 provider goes into UUnet on a capacity called an OC-12, equal to 12 T-3s in capacity."

Huh? In case you couldn't decipher the above, these words from marketing director Donald Engler describe the sophisticated Internet access at New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Such lingo is rapidly taking over the trade show world. Whether exhibitors are hawking software or shoes, toys or gifts, chances are somebody on the floor will need to be hooked up to the Internet and/or networked to someone else.

This new focus on technology changes the nature of the site inspection. On top of the usual criteria -making sure the exhibit hall is big enough, there are enough breakout rooms and there's adequate parking space - you have to evaluate the wiring, Internet access, the telephone service and more. Where do you start?

How many wires per exhibitor?
Understand that no matter how sophisticated the facility, you'll probably make some modifications for your show. And no matter how unsophisticated the facility, you probably can rig a system that will work. Half of the process of finding out what kind of work you'll need to do, technically speaking, is understanding the requirements of the majority of your users - exhibitors, seminar leaders, keynoters, et al.

At Needham, Mass.-based ZDEvents - which handles a slew of technology conventions, including all versions of COMDEX, the huge, cutting-edge computer show, and Networld+Interop, which focuses on networking, the Internet and telecommunications - an in-house technology staff works with planners to ensure the show floor is ready for whatever new products will be on display. "We have to understand what our exhibitors require and how we can accommodate them in whatever facility we choose," says director of venue planning Lolita Elverrilo.

"Do your homework; know what your needs are cold," adds Norman Aamodt, manager of events marketing for Philadelphia-based software giant SAP America. Each year, the company sponsors SAPPHIRE, where customers and prospects converge to try out SAP's programs and related products. This year, more than 15,000 people showed up for the event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. "Odds are, when you get to the facility, their people are not going to be as knowledgeable as you need them to be," he says. "It's not a knock on them. These buildings were started basically as big meeting rooms, but everything's really changed."

The ultimate words of wisdom come from J. Michael Sodergren, president of Streamline Communications in San Jose, Calif., who evaluates facilities (and often provides complicated temporary network systems, services and infrastructure) for such clients as Microsoft and the DVC (desktop videoconferencing) Conference and Exhibition: "You should exceed the minimum requirements of your most particular exhibitor while keeping an eye on the price impact across all users." Sodergren suggests planners evaluate the following.

Type of services: Will exhibitors and show organizers need a local area network (LAN), Internet access, ISDN lines, plain old telephone service (POTS), a PBX, wireless capabilities, satellite hookups, point-to-point wiring (between individual exhibitors, between meeting rooms), value-added services (Web casting, for instance)?

Cost: Who will be paying, and how much are they willing to pay? Is show management looking to recoup all or some of the money? Do you want to make money on some but not all services? What's the price of other options (for instance, Internet access over a shared T-1 line versus dial-up service over a regular phone line, per exhibitor)

Quality: How much support will be needed (on-site technicians, pre-show consultation, 24-hour response)? Do you need more systems, services and infrastructure than the facility has (a show LAN, which can take days to set up, or wide area network [WAN] access, which can take months)? How will you handle last-minute changes?

Quantity: How many physical connections do you need to provide and how many logical ones (multiple connections coming out of a single physical one)?

THE INSPECTION
Now that you've documented your show's requirements, it's time for the nitty-gritty: What resources does the facility actually have?

Use the following checklist, compiled with Sodergren's help, as a framework for a technology site inspection. But remember, points out Sodergren: Every show has different needs. These generic questions should be tailored for your show. He recommends that this survey be taken at least four months before the event.

  • Examine the MPOE. This is the main point of entry and often the location of the cabling systems, or main distribution frame, where WAN communication services enter the building. Who controls it - the facility, the local telephone company or a third-party contractor? Is there room for your equipment? If yes, where does your equipment go and when can you install it? When must you remove it? Is there enough power to run it? What kind of security is involved - can you get access 24 hours a day?
  • Check the closets. Look for wiring closets and intermediate distribution frames. These should be throughout the building to distribute communications while staying within cable-length specifications for today's high-speed data networks. What's in them (IP switches or repeaters, copper and/or fiber connections to the MPOE, wiring racks with patch panels)? Are they within 100 meters of any targeted point on the show floor or conference room? (Any farther apart and the communications might fail.) How structured is the system? Is it a patching system that allows for customization and rapid reconfiguration? Again, is there room for your equipment and can you get access 24 hours a day?
  • Look at the building's wiring. Is it copper? What kind? Category 3 UTP is telephone wire, category 5 UTP runs data networks and tomorrow's integrated voice, video and data. Or is it single mode or multimode fiber optic using SC or ST connectors? Your exhibitors will need to know this information.
  • Examine Internet access. Is there a permanent connection and service? If yes, who is the service provider (local or national)? As Engler from the Morial Center explains, "Think of Internet service in terms of water. You've got a two-inch pipe that goes into your house, that goes into a five-inch pipe in the street to the 12-inch pipe in the highway to the 36-inch pipe at the water tower. If you eliminate those smaller pipes, you get bigger bandwidth where you are. We as a building are hooked right into the 12-inch pipe on the highway [a national provider], which goes right into the 36-inch pipe at the water tower."

    Is access through a router that connects to a LAN? What native service brings in the connections - a T-1 line (transferring 1.5 megabytes per second), multiple T-1s, a T-3 (45 megabytes/second)? Is there enough capacity for your group? Generally, according to Sodergren, you don't want to assign more than 50 Internet connections per T-1 line. Can you bring in your own Internet service provider? When Streamline wired the World Trade Center Boston for Microsoft Exchange '98, tying more than 500 PCs to the Web, there wasn't enough access. The show added five T-1s by contracting with a national provider. "This was at a facility with an evolving basic infrastructure and supporting services," says Sodergren.

  • Check ISDN access. Using ISDN lines, those communicating over the Internet have a dial-up resource that is billed based on usage. It may be slower than a shared T-1, but all the bandwidth is yours. Depending on the provider, an ISDN line is 40 to 50 percent cheaper than the cost of a LAN using T-1 access.
  • Inquire about phone service. Is there an on-site PBX or are calls switched at the telephone company's central office? Either type of service will give you and your exhibitors different options at the show. Many facilities have both.
  • Check WAN access. If there is a wide area network, who operates it - a regional Bell operating company (like Pacific Bell), a local exchange carrier or a competitive local exchange carrier? What is their track record on new installs and operating performance? If required or even available, what will it cost for access to new or augmented resources and how will those charges be billed? What is the lead time for a new installation? How much access is available?

    When evaluating the central office that services the network, ask how far it is from the facility, because more distance equals higher cost. Also, what kind of equipment is in that facility, since different types of switches can affect cost and performance? Is the switching facility overextended or can it handle what you bring in? Sodergren recommends getting everything in writing. Also, look for facilities where you don't have to contract for temporary service. The installation and monthly charges can be huge.

  • Ask about inside wiring. Who does it - facility employees, the telephone company, third-party contractors? This is one area where you have to look out for exclusive contracts, as Katie Blanchard is discovering in her travels as director of conference operations for Hinsdale, Ill.-based BCR Enterprises, which organizes the desktop videoconferencing show that Sodergren works on. She brought the East Coast version of the biannual event - which typically uses 90 ISDN lines and about 70 phone lines - to the World Trade Center Boston last month and had to work around the contracts in place there. "We shared the responsibility to do the wiring," she says.
  • Check resources for a LAN. Do they have servers, routers, repeaters, switches, transceivers? How many ports? Is it supported by the popular Media Access Control protocols (like Ethernet, Fast Ethernet)? What can you use? Is there a charge? Does the equipment require reconfiguration for your plan (half duplex, full duplex, autosensing)? How complex would a modification be for your needs? Can you bring in your own equipment and still use their wires?
  • Look for a staging area. This is a place, separate from the trade show floor, where you can test your systems while tapping into their infrastructure, systems and services. How far in advance of the show is it available?
  • Size up in-house technical staff. "Do you like to see a tech staff at the facility? Yes, and you'd like them to have been in place for a couple of years," says Elverrilo of ZDEvents. Finding people at the venue who are comfortably familiar with its resources is more important than finding state-of-the-art wiring or a sophisticated technical backbone, she adds.
  • Make sure you'll get enough setup time. "Our move-ins have always been a challenge," says Blanchard. For DVC '98 Fall last month, she got about 24 hours - getting in the hall at midnight on Sunday, with the show starting on Tuesday. Luckily, Sodergren kept Blanchard's needs in mind when he wired the place for the earlier Microsoft Exchange show.
  • Borrow from experience. Don't forget to ask the facility's advice, then make your own educated decisions. How far in advance should you order services and set up the show network? What systems, services and infrastructure have other similar shows used? How can you save time in setup? How can you save money? What value-added services do they support that might improve the show and make more money? What services do they think they can do better in-house than any outside contractor? "Give them every chance to show why they can do the whole job for you," adds Sodergren.
  • Just because the facility doesn't have the perfect setup from the get-go doesn't mean your show won't work there. These questions will help you figure out how much effort it would take to create the perfect show floor. Sometimes you just need some ingenuity, like Blanchard and her team used once in Washington, D.C. "We installed a network - not only a LAN but an ISDN network - in the parking garage at the Omni Shoreham. It was probably a lot more paperwork than we like, but for everyone involved it worked fine."

    And, if you haven't learned what all of the lingo means yet, do what Blanchard and Aamodt and Elverrilo do: Bring along someone who is technically qualified to complete this part of your site inspection.

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