Crowds and Smoke Mark OFC

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- OFC 2001 -- Billowing smoke was just one of the snafus marring Monday's debut of the gargantuan Optical Fiber Conference (OFC) show that started here on Monday.

Though the smoke cloud that wafted through Hall E for a good part of the day was just the product of an overtaxed, underventilated concessions grill -- and not the result of the Nasdaq's meltdown -- it may serve as a metaphor for problems associated with the massive growth of the conference.

Despite the concern about a near-term slowdown in the telecom economy, to which most of optical technology companies in attendance are linked, the conference has become a giant. According to show organizers, attendance for this week's event is expected to near 40,000 when all is said and done, a huge leap from last year's 18,000 total.

Crowds often bring frustration. The laundry list of Monday's problems included (but wasn't limited to):

  • A registration backup and related crowd-control effort that almost led to fisticuffs;

  • An apparent lack of show-floor maps, which led to much confused wandering;

  • Inoperable "product finder" kiosks, which added to the confusion;

  • A grand-scale parking fiasco that led to hours of wasted time and gasoline;

  • A scarcity of concession operations, which led to gnashing of teeth and widespread theft of press-room victuals;

  • An unexpectedly warm and sunny day (probably not the organizers' fault), which produced perceptible perspiration among the overdressed throng -- and rolling blackouts in local neighborhoods.

    At times, Monday morning, it seemed like all 40,000 were packed into the basement of the Anaheim Convention Center, where the organizers, curiously, located the registration desks. The poor traffic-flow pattern caused the inevitable jam of humanity, which all but cut off access to the vendor booths located on the same floor. At one point, nattily attired show gendarmes tried to limit access to the forward escalators, causing much pushing and shoving, and almost provoking exchanges of blows between the security officers and the badge-seeking attendees.

    "There was some waiting in lines, but I think we were able to make the lines move pretty well," says Matt Puglisi, public affairs manager for OFC. Puglisi, who said he hadn't heard any reports of the escalator conflict, says that 30,000 attendees had pre-registered for the show, which should have kept sign-in problems to a minimum. Still, the crush of people interested in matters optical seems to have caught OFC unprepared on several other fronts, including concessions, parking information, and reference-materials support.

    For example, the Pizza Hut in the nearby Marriott hotel ran out of "personal" size pizzas early on, leading to overeating by attendees forced to buy full-size pies.

    Maps were also in short supply. None were to be found early in the day, making navigation an adventure. Attendees who turned to the computer-based "product finder" system for help were often frustrated, as many of the stations simply didn't work.

    "I'm not aware of any of the problems," Puglisi says. "Most of the people I've been running into have been pretty excited about the show."

    On the plus side, the hotel shuttle buses ran efficiently, even skirting the traffic snafus caused by the rolling power blackouts that hit the Los Angeles area Monday.

    -- Paul Kapustka, Editor at Large, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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