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Behind The Curtain ...

The `Governator' Has Arrived On This (Imaginary) Day, And Everything Falls Into Place Just As Planned, With The Help Of Integrated Fiber Optics, Uplinks, Downlinks, And A Nice Grand Piano

May 29, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

The dark limousine sweeps up the back ramp to the Connecticut Convention Center, moves right into the building, and then pulls, incongruously, inside a giant hydraulic freight elevator.

Somebody pushes a button to lift the car carrying the governor of the state of California to the third floor. Once there, the limo pulls slowly into the hallway, finally depositing Arnold Schwarzenegger a foot outside the "green room," where he is to prepare for his speech to 7,000 heart surgeons.

"Ahhll be baahck," the movie-star governor growls at his aides cluster outside. He disappears inside with his laptop to connect to the convention center's computer network, which can move data from the Internet about 5,000 times faster than a dial-up connection.

The "Governator's" visit and the surgeons' meeting are imaginary, but the technological capabilities of Hartford's new $271 million convention center are very real. This tale of a hypothetical event illustrates how large conventions will use the center's massive, yet intricate, infrastructure:

Inside the convention center's 40,000-square-foot ballroom - a room about two-thirds the size of a football field - workers are rearranging some of the inventory of more than 7,000 chairs, 1,200 tables, five complete sets of U.S. and state flags, and one grand piano to prepare for Schwarzenegger's keynote speech. It is to be the climax of a convention whose planning began literally years before.

Downstairs in the 140,000-square-foot exhibition hall, several hundred medical technology and pharmaceutical companies are exhibiting their wares to the heart surgeons.

While the size of the new convention center is striking, its executives say what may be most arresting about the new state-owned building is the advanced state of its technology. Its features include an integrated fiber optic data, voice and video network; a wireless "communications bubble" that allows conventioneers to link laptops or portable data devices to the Internet anywhere in the building; video screens to display flights at Bradley International Airport; and an energy system that will capture heat from morning showers taken in the adjacent Marriott Hartford Downtown hotel to cool the convention center later that day.

Some of the technology is so new that it wasn't widely available to the public when design of the convention center began, back in the last century. Architects, technicians and engineers had to make allowances for things like buildingwide wireless Internet and "webcasting" from the show floor while the convention center was being designed and built.

"We're not aware of any [convention centers] that are open, that have put in place what we have here," said Jeff Nyland, director of multiservices with Total Communications Inc. in East Hartford, the provider for communications systems at the convention center. "There are a number that are trying to retrofit, but once the brick and mortar goes up, it's hard to get back into the walls."

The convention center is designed to host everything from dog shows to rock concerts - even if many of those concerts will be part of a members-only convention. Its design and construction allow 20 tractor-trailers to park in its docks to disgorge cargo. The list of rules that govern the building are as complex as its infrastructure. That code governs everything from gratuities paid to employees to the amount of gas that can be left in the tanks of cars displayed on the exhibition floor.

The convention center will provide services such as security, catering and ticket-taking. But in many cases, the truckers, florists, photographers and others working a convention will work for private vendors.

"Our job is to lease the building, and then farm that out to the local economy," said Ben Seidel, executive director of the convention center for the Waterford Group, the company that will manage the state-owned building.

Selling The Asset

For a big, citywide event such as the hypothetical surgeons' convention and medical equipment trade show keynoted by Schwarzenegger, the sales force for the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau would try to lease the convention center and the city five years or more before the actual event.

With an event license signed, actual planning for a large convention or trade show begins up to four years in advance, said Scott Ling, president of Demers Exposition Services. The Middletown company, one of the general service contractors that will stage large events at the convention center, expects to do about 20 events here this year, including the first official event on Thursday, the Connecticut XPO 2005 for Business.

Convention and exposition companies say the real planning crunch comes 30 to 60 days before an event. Around that time, contractors must settle the floor plans for booths - the exhibition hall can accommodate up to 800 exhibitor booths - and must finalize plans for electrical, mechanical, telecommunications and information technology needs, and complete their catering and concessions plans.

The details are daunting, but Ling thinks the technology and design will make the new convention center easier to use, not more complicated.

"A building is a building," he said. "We are going to get into a groove."

Marshaling The Trucks

The tractor-trailers carrying the medical equipment for the trade show began to arrive in Hartford several days before the delegates. Like armies massing in a designated spot before an invasion, they assemble at a remote location before converging on the convention center.

One of the most intricate and complicated parts of staging a large convention or trade show is what those in the business call "marshaling" - the act of moving the exhibition booths, the banners, the miles of carpeting into the convention hall, and then assembling it according to plan. Because every minute of time in a rented convention center is costly, the gear needs to be loaded into the hall as quickly as possible, in a choreographed minuet of trucks, forklifts, pallet jacks and dollies.

"It's a simple theory," Ling said. "It just takes a lot of execution."



SER Exposition Services of Worcester expects to use between 40 and 100 workers to load-in its largest trade shows or other meetings in Hartford.

"Sometimes, if convention centers are busy, you will work through the night to get the job done," said Matt DiSalvo, senior vice president and general manager of SER.

Each booth is provided with heavy-duty electrical and telephone connections, high-speed data connectivity, water and drainage. If an exhibitor needs to get a more exotic substance to a booth - compressed air to run machinery, for example, or some rarer gas or liquid - the convention center can provide that, too. A conduit called a "utilidor" runs under the entire length to the exhibition hall floor, allowing the building to pipe a wide variety of substances into each booth.

As the governor of California begins his speech in the ballroom, the digital capabilities of the new center become apparent. Behind his burly shoulders, a video screen shows a picture of Schwarzenegger, with a separate window on the screen showing highlights of his plan to reduce health care costs. Another window shows voters in California watching the governor's speech. Using "webcasting," those voters will be able to pose real-time questions to the governor.

"Ahnd ahs you can see from my Pohwa Poihnt presentation" ... , Schwarzegger rumbles in his Austrian accent. His image is piped to screens throughout the convention center, to televisions in rooms at the adjacent Marriott, and uplinked to a satellite for CNN and Fox News to pick up.

In older convention centers, workers have to string separate webs of coaxial cable to present video, data and voice images in one program. In the Hartford convention center, that capability is built into the building's fiber optic network.

The center is expected to host other new technology now being introduced to the convention industry, Seidel said. One new system called Radio Frequency Identification - RFID - imbeds a chip in each convention delegate's name badge, which, wedded to wireless computing and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, allows exhibitors to track which delegates go to which booths, and how much time they spend there.

Bringing In The Workers

The convention center is designed to host events attended by thousands of people, and multiple events at the same time. Other times, it will be dark for days at a time. Because of that ebb and flood pattern, the center's workforce will need to expand and contract dramatically.

With a banquet for 2,000 guests on tap to honor Schwarzenegger later that evening, part-time waiters, table busers and security staff are filing into the convention center to begin preparations.

In an office behind the loading docks, they swipe an ID card and a computer registers the gear they are to be issued - black waiters' jackets, radios, beepers and anything else they need to do their job that night.

Upstairs, the kitchen is powering up for the night as well.

It is well-equipped to deliver vast amounts of food to the plates of several thousand diners. Its coffee makers, which have filter barrels roughly the size of a propane tank, drip coffee in batches of 6 gallons and produce iced tea in batches of 18 gallons. The kitchen's two pre-programmable ovens can prepare 1,000 steaks in 10 minutes to a perfect medium rare, or steam 720 pounds of asparagus in the same amount of time. Of course, you don't make that many meals without a few accidents - the convention center expects to break more than 2,600 pieces of china each year.

Still, the kitchen's hospitality horsepower and the building's technical wizardry are back-of-the-house attributes that actual conventiongoers will never see.

What most visitors will remember is the 125-foot atrium and the striking views of downtown and the reach of the Connecticut River from the building's upper levels, said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"In the tours I've taken through the building, that's the wow factor," Phelps said. "I've seen people get that wide-eyed look when they get the views of the river in either direction."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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