They Came, They Saw ... They Have Mixed Reviews

World Congress: Va. Takes Center Stage

By Bob Starzynski
Staff Writer

After two years of planning, fund raising and recruiting, the highly heralded World Congress on Information Technology came and went without a hitch.

Billed by Washington-area organizers as Northern Virginia's biggest technology show yet, the June 21-24 event took over much of the George Mason University campus in Fairfax.


Margaret Thatcher
Some 1,600 attendees from more than 90 countries worldwide trekked to the campus to hear industry leaders like Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle Corp., and Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer Corp., tout technology. World leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher also got in on the act.

The World Congress, a biennial event started 20 years ago, joins business executives from around the world to discuss industry issues. Organized by information technology associations in many countries, its last incarnation was in Bilbao, Spain, in 1996. The event was held with less fanfare in Washington eight years ago. In 2000, Taipei, Taiwan, will play host.

More than 100 conference sponsors (including Washington Technology and its parent company, The Washington Post Co.) anteed $10,000 to $100,000 to attach their names to the event and, in many cases, to set up exhibit booths. Sponsorship, contributions and participant fees ($1,250 per person) gave the World Congress a budget of $5.8 million.

While most attendees came to network for new business and gain better insight of information technology issues as the world approaches the next millennium, local officials had a different agenda: to market the Washington region as one of the world's premier technology centers and recruit new businesses to the area.

On stage, the World Congress appeared flawless - all 60 speakers pulled through, and there were few technical glitches. However, several event staffers talked quietly about confusion and chaos behind the scenes.

"Two days before the [event] started, we were scratching our heads, wondering how we could possibly get everything together in time," said one staffer. "Considering how long this thing has been planned, it was really disorganized at the end."

Another staffer said: "I'm supposed to be directing people around, but I don't even know where I'm going."

One downside was the attendance. Organizers were shooting for 1,800 participants but only 1,600 signed up, underselling capacity by 12 percent. Most speech sessions were nearly full, although the auditorium where the speeches were held always had empty seats.

"No, we didn't hit full capacity, because there are always crises that keep people away," said George Newstrom, the event's chairman and corporate vice president for Electronic Data Systems Corp. in Herndon, Va. "But I think it was still the best technology event we've had in this region."

A common thread in every speech was the convergence of information technology and consumer demand.

"We may expect enormous advances in science in the next century," said Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain, noting space and communications as two top fields in coming years. "It will be more and more difficult to keep the truth out in the future," she said, voicing her dislike for dictatorships and tyranny.

"Information technology protects freedom through the free flow of information. People don't have to [rely] on propaganda [for their news]," she said.


Mikhail Gorbachev
Steve Forbes, former presidential hopeful and editor in chief of Forbes magazine, spent most of his speech offering simple advice on running a business.

"The [Internet] and the printed page are different," he said, drawing a comparison between the new and old ways of providing information to readers. "They should be treated differently. [After all,] films are not just a filmed version of stage plays."

Speaking in his native Russian tongue, former Soviet president Gorbachev told the crowd that development of telecommunications and the Internet is doubling every year in Russia. But, he added, dissemination of information there is still a problem.

"The question is: Are we moving fast enough? Frankly, I cannot answer 'yes,'" he said.

They Came, They Saw ... They Have Mixed Reviews

While local organizers carefully orchestrated the World Congress to spotlight the Washington area as a hot technology region, attendees' lasting perceptions appeared more focused on the content rather than the surrounding community.

Those who came to the World Congress for heavy-duty networking, entertainment and schmoozing were not disappointed, according to numerous interviews with participants.

However, those who came to the George Mason University campus expecting to take home valuable information about running an IT company or a worldwide consensus on certain high-tech issues may have left without a glowing impression.

Washington Technology staff writer Bob Starzynski talked with a number of attendees about their World Congress experiences on the last day of the event. Here's a snapshot of their responses:

Jehangir Daruvala

Chief executive officer of Transtel Systems, Bombay, India

WT: What were you expecting to get out of the World Congress?

Daruvala: I saw this as a marketing opportunity for a company like mine.

WT: Did it meet your expectations?

Daruvala: It was definitely worth the time and money. By using a [database of attendees], I sent out e-mails beforehand and set up 10 meetings. I've been to the United States before, but this is the most productive visit I've had.

WT: What did you think of the exhibits?

Daruvala: The exhibit hall was OK, but I've seen better.

WT: Who was your favorite speaker?

Daruvala: Jeffrey Sachs [director of Harvard University's Institute for International Development].

Lee McCardell

Regional director of sales for Siemens
Business Communications Systems,

Vienna, Va.

WT: What were you expecting to get out of the World Congress?

McCardell: Well, Siemens is a sponsor, so we wanted to get the exposure.

WT: Was it worth it?

McCardell: Absolutely, it was worth it.

WT: Did you get anything else out of the event?

McCardell: It was a sharing of ideas on information technology as we get ready for the 21st century.

WT: What did you think of the exhibits?

McCardell: I didn't spend much time at the exhibits.

WT: Who was your favorite speaker?

McCardell: Don Tapscott [author of "The Digital Economy"].

Greg Baroni

Partner and national practice director

for KPMG Peat Marwick,

Washington, D.C.

WT: What were you expecting to get out of the World Congress?

Baroni: When you come to any conference, you expect rich content, interaction and networking. It's a lot of meeting new people.

WT: Did it meet your expectations?

Baroni: It was very enriching. It helps to facilitate new business, but not in any traditional sense.

WT: What did you think of the exhibits?

Baroni: I would have liked to see the exhibit floor more integrated [with the rest of the event].

WT: Who was your favorite speaker?

Baroni: Don Tapscott. He takes such a visionary approach.

Mario Roger

Head of PC sales unit for Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems, Budapest, Hungary

WT: What were you expecting to get out of the World Congress?

Roger: I was expecting more information than show. I was looking for ideas for my own business.

WT: Did it meet your expectations?

Roger: I've enjoyed being here. A couple of the programs were good. But it's more entertainment than idea sharing. Perhaps I should have known what to expect. But from the name, you'd think you could get more information technology ideas.

WT: What did you think of the exhibits?

Roger: The exhibit area was impressive.

WT: Who was your favorite speaker?

Roger: I got a lot out of Philip Condit [chairman and CEO of the Boeing Co.], Michael Dell [chairman and CEO of Dell Computer Corp.], Larry Ellison [CEO of Oracle Corp.] and Jeffrey Sachs.


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