Industry's World Congress Seeks Spielberg Spin

Northern Virginia prepares for a visit from the world's 1,500 top infotech executives

Twenty months from now, 1,500 top information technology executives from around the world are expected to gather at the Fairfax, Va., campus of George Mason University to hear Steven Spielberg talk about what he most desires from the information age.

Or will it be Norman Schwarzkopf doing the talking?

Finding a keynote speaker for the global venue known as the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology is just the latest challenge for the team of 11 organizers responsible for turning the biennial world gathering into a memorable event.

More than producing memories, the 1998 World Congress is expected to capture the world's attention and for three days focus it on a geography located 10 miles west of one of the world's most powerful capitals.

"You can't buy this kind of visibility.... Fairfax County will become an entry way into the country," said Gerald Gordon, executive director of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. Gordon compares the economic impact of the June 21-24, 1998 event to the 1996 Olympics.

While few believe that dividends from the 1998 World Congress will match the $5 billion boost Atlanta is estimated to have received from the Olympics, previous sponsors of the event boast sizable commercial impact.

Pedro G. De Cos, the coordinator of this year's World Congress in Bilbao, Spain, said the event brought worldwide recognition to an industrial region of Spain that had long been ignored overseas.

"Our intention was not to grow business overnight but to create a base for business in the future," said De Cos, who claims the Spanish event attracted not only the king and queen of Spain, but 1,200 top information technology executives from 40 countries.

The European Union, based in Brussels, Belgium, helped sponsor the event, along with technology companies including Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Lotus Development Corp.

"This event sends a message to the world and to the region itself," said Mario Morino, founder of the Potomac KnowledgeWay and a member of the 1998 World Congress board of directors. "We're hoping companies in the region will realize the strength of the area from an international point of view," he said.

Among the organizers trying to attract sponsors, attendees and speakers for the 1998 World Congress is Jim Poisant, an Electronic Data Systems Corp. executive who has been assigned full time to help organize the event.

Poisant estimates it will cost $2.5 million to $3 million for staffing and a worldwide marketing campaign. Organizers have already enlisted sponsors such as AT&T, BDM International Inc., BTG Inc., Coopers & Lybrand and EDS. Poisant says he has reached his sponsorship goal but is still combing the country for additional funding.

Unlike earlier World Congresses where a roster of infotech industry leaders were asked to speak, the 1998 event is expected to feature top executives from outside the technology industry, a move to help the infotech attendees assess changing consumer attitudes.

"This will allow IT companies to look at what they're doing and change it," said Poisant, who describes the event as a business meeting between infotech executives and industry leaders in retail, manufacturing, education, financial services, health care, entertainment and government.

"The [speakers] will be able to propel the IT industry... as IT is converging toward the consumer," said Poisant.

Poisant has expressed interest in attracting executives from giant retailers such as Wal-Mart Corp. and entertainment companies such as Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, a studio formed in October 1994 to create motion pictures, animated films, television programs for network, cable and syndication, and interactive products.

Poisant also wants to lure retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who is a financial contributor to the StarBright Foundation, a nonprofit group of technology and entertainment companies that has developed an online service for hospitalized children worldwide. Spielberg also has ties to the foundation.

The World Congress has been taking place every two years since 1978. In November 1995, the World Information Technology & Services Alliance, a global coalition of computing and telecommunications companies, awarded Fairfax County the 11th World Congress. Taiwan is scheduled to host the 2000 World Congress, while Australia will host the 2002 World Congress.

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