Laid-off techies get the cheap seats

As companies continue to slash travel and entertainment budgets, one conference organizer is hoping to boost attendance by doling out free tickets to unemployed workers.

A Silicon Valley conference popular with tech insiders is waiving its $895 fee for unemployed workers, hoping to boost attendance as corporations slash travel and entertainment budgets.

Los Gatos, Calif.-based conference producer announced Thursday that laid-off tech professionals would get complimentary passes to CDN-The Content Networking Event, to be held Dec. 4 to 6 at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif.

Stardust President Karen Milne said organizers won't attempt to verify pink slips or request copies of unemployment checks, preferring to dole out tickets on an honor system for down-on-their-luck workers.

"Anybody who's going to say they're unemployed and pass out current business cards at the event is going to be quite out of line," Milne said.

Milne made the decision after realizing that the conference, which normally attracts about 500 paying attendees, only had about 300 registered attendees with only a few weeks of open registration remaining. She was also concerned that a portion of the registered attendees would bail out, based on Americans' continued hesitancy about air travel in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Free admission to CDN is the latest crimp for the once-thriving cottage industry of tech conference organization. In addition to declining attendance, organizers have had to deal with last-minute postponements, speaker cancellations, and heightened security concerns.

PCIA, for example, immediately canceled its GlobalXChange 2001, scheduled to begin Sept. 11 in Los Angeles, mainly because of security concerns related to the terrorist attacks.

Dozens of conferences--from sporting goods retailers to biotech companies--were canceled or postponed while the 814,000 square-foot Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was serving as an emergency relief center after the attacks in New York. Penton Media's Internet World was originally scheduled for mid-September, but it's now rescheduled for Dec. 10 to 13.

Most curiously, Key3Media Events, one of the premier global conferences for tech workers and executives, banned laptops at Las Vegas trade show Comdex Fall 2001 because of concerns over smuggled bombs, weapons and other dangers on the show floor. After outrage among technophiles and working journalists, the organizer revoked the ban on laptops--but it prohibited people from carrying the computers in shoulder bags or luggage.

In addition to giving free admission to some attendees, Stardust has downscaled ambitions of making CDN a twice-a-year event. It will remain an annual event--the same format since 1997.

Despite that, Milne said attendees will find engaging panel discussions and speeches for the content networking niche. The sector helps information technology workers produce corporate Webcasts across intranets and extranets, along with multimedia presentations such as sporting events, fashion shows and live news coverage. The content networking focus also offers personalized services including local advertising, storage and virus scanning.

Milne said the event could give a boost to unemployed job hunters willing to schmooze with potential employers. Companies with representatives attending the event include Bank of America Securities, IBM, Intel and Sun Microsystems.

"There's a lot of networking that goes on just because of the content of the presentations, which can be quite controversial," she said. "You see people all the time talking afterward, debating and introducing themselves to colleagues."

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