by Martha Heller

IT Gets a Bigger Role in the Conventions Business

Aug 26, 20143 mins

Wherever people convene, IT is essential, says James E. Rooney, Executive Director at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Martha Heller sits down with James E. Rooney, executive director at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority..

How is technology changing the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority?

We host conventions in Boston, which is a major international destination for knowledge-based industries. We have as many as 30,000 people in the convention center at one time, and they each carry two to three devices. They want reliable connectivity; this is a constant demand on convention centers. We also need to enable a speaker in Boston to be broadcast to Hong Kong or Paris or wherever the global audience resides.

One new application that I enjoy is our real-time survey tool. We can survey tens of thousands of people in our facilities and learn whether a meeting room is too cold, a bathroom is not clean or there is a maintenance issue. I used to learn all of that after the meeting was over, when I couldn’t do much about it.

Are you hiring employees with different sets of skills?

Only a few years ago, conventions were very large halls set up for a lecture format, and the audiovisual requirements were fundamental. We needed friendly people who knew how to host an event, and our greeters would just say hello and give directions. Now they have iPads with information about every session, hotel selections and local restaurant information. We also need many more people who can provide technical support, whether for electrical connections or wireless or data.

This new technology puts pressure on IT. What are the skills you value in your IT leader?

I like having what I call a “lunch pail” CIO, who does not sit behind a desk thinking about the future of technology but who is engaged with our people. I also need a leader who is very good at listening to ideas and translating them into technology solutions.

What advice do you have for other leaders about how to position their CIO for success?

Two years ago, we had a yearlong series of meetings at all levels of the organization to discuss our vision and how to achieve it. Through that process, we decided to capitalize on our reputation for superior technology by pulling technology into our list of strategic priorities. That process helped empower our CIO.

How will technology affect the convention business in the future?

Every once in a while, I am asked, “With technology allowing people to do everything remotely, will conventions become obsolete?” Years ago, we asked that question about retail and real estate. But people still like to go to shopping, and they still come to the office. I actually think that because of technology, people make more connections than they used to, and then they decide to meet. But I still need to be acutely aware of how technology is changing our business.

When it comes to convention-center technology, what are you most excited about?

Recently, we hosted a meeting for a group of heart surgeons, and one of the surgeons was on a dais in front of a big screen that showed a woman on an operating table in Milan. Through the use of robotics, the doctor in Boston was operating on this woman. We’ve seen robotics and holograms and other technologies in these meetings. To me, this is amazing.