Expos up security, perks to fill seats

Conference organizers are pulling out the stops to avoid cancellations, offering new assurances of security and perks to lure reluctant travelers into attendance.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
6 min read
Comdex is moving ahead on schedule despite disruptions caused by last month's terrorist attacks, with security taking a front-row seat.

Show manager Bill Sells of Key3Media said he's been fielding calls from numerous exhibitors and attendees worried about a washout at the IT industry's biggest annual conference in Las Vegas next month. But he said the signs so far are good, with not one exhibitor or major speaker dropping out since suicide hijackers smashed commercial jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11.

"They've all reconfirmed," Sells said of scheduled keynote speakers, which include Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers. "It's eight weeks after the terrorist attacks, and we feel by that point, people will be ready to talk about what's next in the IT industry."

Tech conference organizers are trying to remain upbeat in the face of a slump brought on by a looming recession and raw fear following the worst attack on U.S. soil in history. Many conferences, including Apple Computer's Expo, have already folded their tents. But other event holders are pulling out the stops to avoid cancellations, offering new assurances of security and perks including free airline tickets to lure reluctant travelers into attendance.

Internet research firm Gartner is among those concerned about the financial fallout of the attacks for the conference business. Right after the terrorist attacks, the company canceled its application development conference in Florida scheduled for Sept. 12. Now it is trying to maintain revenue for its largest annual conference, Gartner Symposium/IT Expo, which starts next week in Orlando, Fla., and typically draws about 7,000 IT professionals.

To offset its many cancellations for the symposium, the company is offering a virtual conference via Webcast and a complete multimedia CD-ROM, which sells for the price of the conference, $3,395. The company said it's maintained its number of registrants at 5,500, the level before the attacks.

"We're trying to keep up our revenue," said Alex Cordova, an event planner at Gartner. "Instead of canceling out these clients, we're trying to offer an alternative solution.

"A lot of the attendees are afraid to fly."

Leaving Las Vegas
Comdex's home base in Las Vegas has been hit particularly hard. Two weeks after the attacks, only 75 percent of Las Vegas' nearly 125,000 rooms were filled for the weekend, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority (LVCVA). The city is accustomed to about 95 percent occupancy, thanks partly to industry shows such as Comdex, which typically brings 200,000 visitors to the city.

Terry Jicinsky, research director at LVCVA, said that hotel occupancy rates have steadily rebounded, hitting nearly 93 percent by last weekend as a result of hotels slashing room rates. But he said midweek levels are still far below the norm following the terrorist attacks. About 250 small meetings and conventions canceled their Las Vegas shows in September and October, a sign that doesn't bode well for Comdex-hungry vendors.

Jicinsky said he couldn't forecast occupancy rates for Comdex 2001 because hotels keep upcoming reservations confidential.

Comdex's Sells said that although it's tough to say how many people will come this year, before the attacks he expected attendance to be down 10 percent to 15 percent.

For some leading exhibitors, security is a top priority.

Cisco spokeswoman Mojgan Khalili said the company is concerned about safeguarding its customers and employees at Comdex, including CEO Chambers, who is slated to give a keynote speech. She would not say what measures, if any, the company is taking, however.

"It used to be that security at conferences was nothing more than checking a couple of badges--more of a facade than actual safety," said Alan Bernstein, executive vice president at Wackenhut, the largest provider of security services to the U.S. government. "Now that people are more concerned, we are involved in the upgrade of security at those conventions."

Wackenhut provides the people and planning behind many industry events, Bernstein said, but the company would not disclose its client list. He said "upgraded security" includes guards at all show entry points, tight schedules for equipment delivery and set-up, background checks on all conference workers, and a "security sweep" and "lock down" of the show floor at night.

Wackenhut regularly double-checks attendee badges against the holder's driver's license to ensure people are unable to enter the show off the street. It also provides plain-clothed security guards to watch for thieves and unauthorized packages.

Comdex's Sells said that his company is working with Las Vegas law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and a third-party security consultant to provide additional security for the show. Although he would not specify set measures, he said that he is talking to individual companies with concerns about safety.

"You don't want to give away your security precautions," Sells said.

Increasing options
Other conference organizers have turned to streaming technology to encourage virtual attendance as a cheap alternative to travel.

RealNetworks was one of the first to choose Webcasting for its annual conference, held two weeks after the attacks. Its RealConference 2001 went ahead in Seattle as scheduled. The company offered live Internet streaming coverage of the event for those unwilling or unable to attend in person. The company charged $199.95 to view conference events over the Web, compared with $1,295 for those who traveled to the event.

Internet2, a research and development conference for advanced Net technologies, staged a virtual conference for more than 500 people in lieu of its regular annual meeting this week. Greg Wood, director of communications for Internet2, said the terrorist attacks caused many attendees to reconsider traveling and prompted companies to impose new, more restrictive travel policies.

"By holding this virtual conference, more people can actively participate than would have been possible if we held it at any location in the U.S.," Wood said.

Even before the terrorist attacks, the tech conference market was growing stale. Conference-goers at many popular shows this year found themselves competing for fewer seats and finding a smaller hors d'oeuvres selection at the banquet tables.

Now, in addition to increasing security and offering alternatives to traveling to conferences, taxed organizers are digging deep to tempt possible no-shows with new perks.

On its Web site, Oracle says it plans to open its annual Oracle OpenWorld conference exhibition hall and keynote addresses for free to those who have not registered for seminars. The conference, set for early December, costs about $1,500 to attend.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a 5,000-member trade group representing the $1.7 trillion direct and interactive marketing industry, this week said it is offering free airfare with every new registration to its flagship show Oct. 28 in Chicago. The group is also negotiating new hotel rates for conference attendees.

The promotion won't be cheap. DMA Chief Executive Robert Wientzen expects to spend several hundred thousand dollars on free airfare. But he justified the move, saying that's still only a fraction of the $5 million to $6 million typically spent hosting such events.

"At times like this, it's important for members to come together to talk about what's working and what's not," he said. "When times are tough, you need trade gatherings more than when times aren't."

The DMA expects about 15,000 people at its big annual meeting, off about 2,000 from years past.

Let's talk
Some conference promoters including Comdex's Sells are pushing economic uncertainty and the terrorist attacks as powerful arguments for a need to meet and discuss the future. Organizers are featuring sessions on security, how to cut costs during economic hardship, and skills for coping with the disaster.

"Post-Sept. 11, it's important for us to make sure that the marketplace runs as strong as possible. We need to facilitate the ability for interaction," Sells said.

But that hasn't stopped some tech conference organizers from shuffling plans.

Internet World, one of the industry's largest and longest-running conferences, has pushed its fall schedule into winter. The conference, scheduled in New York for Oct. 1 to Oct. 5, has been moved to Dec. 10 through Dec. 14. The move is partly attributed to the conference's headquarters, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, housing the rescue effort in New York. Penton Media, organizer of Internet World, is now hosting another conference simultaneously. Meanwhile, the organizer postponed StorageNext 2001, a conference on storage-networking technology.

"Our first and gut response is that business must continue and the show must go on," reads a note on Penton's Web site. "However, with each passing day the enormity of this tragedy grows...We have decided that producing the event in early October is just too soon."