How to Plan for Plentiful Bandwidth Long Before Attendees Fire Up Their Devices

Estimating network demands before a meeting allows the planning team to provide adequate wireless service and bandwidth.

Have you been one of the parties in this scenario?

Meeting planner to hotel events manager: “Do you have Wi-Fi?”

Events manager: “Yes, we do. What are you planning for your event?”

Planner: “Internet service for our attendees, so I think we’re set.”

And for many planners that is the end of the conversation.

This might sound like a conversation from a stand-up routine, but it often leads to the opposite of smiles and laughs unless the conversation goes much farther, says Matt Harvey, vice president of client network services for PSAV, which is a Marriott technology services partner.

These days, a Wi-Fi connection that’s adequate for all your attendees and their myriad devices is no less vital than a bottomless coffee station. If the Internet is a bust, the reputation of your event is at risk.

But according to those on the supply side of Internet connectivity, many planners don’t understand how these services work, what types of technology support they need for their meetings or how to budget for it.

The price of services might be the initial concern for event planners, “but when you dig in, what they’re most worried about is reliability and consistency,” Harvey says.

Part of the confusion is that the price for connectivity at a large meeting can vary greatly depending on the venue. Often, Harvey says, pricing fluctuation leaves planners wondering, “How do I budget for that?”

Plus, it’s difficult to compare apples to apples with networking services, which planners can do more easily with food and drink. Harvey believes that once planners become more tech-savvy, they can be smarter shoppers and stabilize the pricing for their events.

Three Questions to Answer Right Away

Network experts emphasize that a lot of Wi-Fi challenges can be avoided with appropriate upfront planning. For example, you might see that a venue offers “free Internet,” so you check that off your to-do list and don’t give it another thought until the day of the meeting, when attendees are having trouble pulling up a video. If you understand how much bandwidth you require, you very well may find that the venue’s free service is far from sufficient.

Connectivity should be a “top-line discussion” item in the initial planning discussion on-site during the contracting process, says Michael Owen, CEO and managing partner of Nashville, Tenn.-based EventGenuity and a member of the Convention Industry Council’s Bandwidth and Conductivity Task Force.

Long before the event, it’s important to evaluate the capability of the venue. Owen suggests alleviating some of the most common wireless challenges by first determining the following:

  • What is anticipated overall demand? The answer will be based on attendees, their likely devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones), potential apps in use, presenters’ requirements, content delivery tools and event operations. Low demand would cover e-mail and web surfing; high demand would extend up to live-streaming video. The council created a Bandwidth Estimator tool that lets you plug in your estimates to help determine bandwidth needs.
  • What will the wireless policy be for exhibitors? Interference from wireless devices on an exhibit floor (think smartphone hotspots and vendor-driven demonstration systems) can cause hiccups for overall Internet access—from conference failure to stuttering webcast feeds. Therefore, it’s key to define what services they can do themselves and what they might need to purchase through you to ensure consistent wireless services for everyone.
  • Who will provide support? Always plan for the worst-case scenario and make sure there’s no single point of failure. Either have IT support on your team or arrange for services from the venue’s technology provider.

Define the Specs Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Back in the day, asking how much bandwidth a venue had was often sufficient for many meetings and events. These days, as bandwidth demands rise and hotels split it up for various uses, it’s better to ask, “How much bandwidth can you dedicate to my event exclusively?” After the event, Harvey suggests asking the venue how much bandwidth was used to aid future planning.

In addition, it’s helpful to understand a venue’s access point (AP) layout. To do this, identify every wireless AP and determine the number of devices that can be used in a particular space without creating traffic bottlenecks. A venue may be able to provide an AP diagram, Harvey says, adding that it’s key to know the age of the diagram. “A safe rule of thumb is that if the AP diagram is less than three years old, you can assume about 150 devices per access point, and you can start doing the math.”

Finally, as important as connectivity is, a killer network is not typically on the top of most planners’ venue selection criteria. So what should you do if you find a fabulous site with poor Wi-Fi capabilities?

“If you really like the venue but don’t have enough bandwidth, a provider can change that,” Harvey says. “But extra bandwidth can take as long as six months to be delivered. If you don’t have enough Wi-Fi, we can fix that too, but that takes two months.”

It’s possible to pull off great Internet service anywhere in the country, Harvey says. “It’s all about planning ahead.”