July 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio July 1999 Current Issue
July 1999 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:




When the phones are down, this new technology saves the day

It was a meeting planner's nightmare. Ours was the first meeting at a new hotel that had not ironed out all its kinks. House phones did not work, all calls ended up at voice mail, and steel in the girders interfered with our cell phones and walkie-talkies. How were we going to maintain communications?

Luckily, we had just given our key staff members two-way digital pagers with mini-keyboards. These are four-ounce gadgets that send or receive e-mail and buzz or beep on your hip. Each gadget has its own e-mail address and 800 number. They turned our frustrated staff into digital gunslingers during this most challenging meeting. When we could not reach each other on the radio or cell phone, we sent instant e-mail.

We were able to communicate with each other within the hotel and even across town, when the buses showed up late at the hotel for the party. While onstage, I received a message, whose stealth arrival was announced by a gentle vibration on my belt, telling me to stretch the general session while the rest of the banquet order arrived.

Wireless e-mail is part of the exploding field of convergent technology, combining computers, telephones and wearable gadgets. Many of the current devices are made by Motorola and are equipped with paging services from Skytel, BellSouth and other companies.

Ours cost approximately $300 apiece plus a fee of about $30 a month, which covers a finite but adequate number of e-mails. I can even instruct the pager to send a message to a computer, which will dial a phone number and "read" the message to the recipient. By equipping every member of our meeting team, we built a powerful and reliable wireless, wide-area network that could function in the most adverse conditions.

Taking a short step into the future, we can see a host of new features and applications for this technology. Imagine being able to give pagers to key committee members or even speakers and stay in touch, without having to monitor radios, throughout the event. Imagine reaching all participants with updates about meeting times or confirmed tee times and restaurant reservations.

In a few months, pagers will be able to surf a company's intranet, request up-to-date information from a database and provide e-commerce options. In less than a year, we will see pagers integrated with global positioning systems and indoor location equipment, allowing us to display the location of key staff members on a screen or even see who is attending what meeting.

Fidelity Investments already is providing the ability to check and even trade stocks from these handheld e-mail machines. A theater chain is getting ready to offer movie reviews and up-to-date counts on available seats for each show, along with instant ticket ordering.

Is total connectivity always good? Not really. I had to turn off my pager from time to time while having important conversations with clients. But e-mail on the hip saved the day for our meeting. It also provided us with a clear record of our crisis communications for the post-conference review. (Not a very pleasant review, by the way.)

Based on this experience, we decided to hand one of these pagers to the convention services manager and catering manager whenever we get to a location, linking them into our portable wide-area network.

For more information, contact your local communications company or surf the Web (, or

ELLIOTT MASIE is president of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Masie Center (, an international think tank focused on learning and technology.

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