Comptel Blues

No I didn’t get fired or quit or lose my virtual pen. I haven’t been writing because, like the monk who took the vow of silence, I didn’t have anything worth talking about during the last four months. Maybe I would have if I had traveled to the Channel Partners show in Boston recently, but I was on vacation then, and I never give up my annual tour of Oklahoma’s finest miniature golf courses. Finally though, I had a trade show worth traveling to, and a mighty fine hotel location as the host: The nation’s largest Marriott, appropriately named the World Center Marriott, in Orlando, just across the Highway from Disney World, a city in itself (all roads, by the way, lead to Disney. We found that out as we drove from the airport and got quite lost.

Every off ramp for five miles would only let us off into Disney World; how convenient for them and the lovers of Mousedom, but not so for us seekers of telecom conference wisdom). Not writing for a period of time allows for a sense of reflection. So does a six month stretch in the county jail for kiting checks, but I only use debit cards now, and that’s another story. Upon much introspect, it appears I may have been too cynical in my previous writings, and several folks have even ventured to suggest I focused too much on the edibles served at telecom functions rather than emerging technology.

Lots of alligators

Lots of alligators. We're in Florida, folks

So, with this in mind, I brought a fresh perspective and attitude to Comptel in Orlando, which certainly was enhanced by the fact that even though I was in First class on United airlines, there didn’t seem to be an overwhelming need on the part of the flight attendants to serve anyone in coach or in our exalted cabin any type of food. Thus, as of ten hours into the day, I had nothing to write about other than the overweight lady sitting next to me that spilled onto my seat. Maybe she stole my lunch when I nodded off for twenty minutes. And whatever happened to the crew bringing out a couple of those cute little bottles of booze so you could pour your own drink and save a bottle for later. Without the spare drinking stock, I am forced to take extreme measures using my mini bar at hotels.

Usually that entails only filching the clear alcohol booze mini’s, sucking out the nectar, and then carefully filling it up with tap water and reattaching the cap and sticking it back in the fridge. Oh come on, you know you either have done that or thought about it. Jimmy Carter said impure thoughts are just as bad as the real thing, so drink up. I digress. After attempting to locate the appropriate exit to the Marriott more times than I care to admit, and it shouldn’t be that difficult because it’s the tallest building in the entire area and Orlando is swampland flat, we finally paid a few extra tolls and gave up and took surface streets back a few exits and checked in. It’s the same wonderful hotel it always has been, just bigger.

Eat at Pearl's smokehouse

Fine Dining. Seriously.

They have just completed a ten year construction project and their convention center is now doubled, so they can handle three full tradeshows concurrently. Ironically, there were two telecom shows at the same time, Comptel and Data Center World, which I would have covered as well with an article or two, but on my first venture into their opening night party, I was so shocked at the ration of geeks to normal people, I decided to forgo their show until next March, when they have it in Vegas. I can put up with about anything in Vegas. This Marriott has been host to more than seven other Comptels over the last fifteen years and it’s been one of the most popular locales for a show for many reasons. Its proximity to many world class attractions allows attendees to bring their families to enjoy Orlando’s amusement Parks, such as Gator Land, before and after the tradeshow. There are numerous golf courses for every class of golfer, including the beautiful Marriott course that circles that perimeter of the property itself. For those that enjoy a more prone lifestyle, the pool is a grotto style layout, with fountains and slides and the requisite pool bar. Inside the Marriott, there are no less than six other fairly decent bars and a choice of cuisines, such as the Japanese teppan restaurant - a more expensive version of Benihana’s but still offering the common aromas from 12 simultaneous cooking experiences with hopefully sober chefs practicing sharp knife martial arts on mushrooms being Ginsu skewered right before the eyes of wary first time diners. Other food choices ranged from Italian to a Ruth-Chris wannabe Steakhouse, and the sports bar was converted recently to a nerd bar, one of the few mistakes Marriot management has made. Best bet for the tradeshow... skip the food choices and head to the massive Lobby bar.

Here’s a hint to the few readers of this blog that attend shows but haven’t figured out where the “real” business is done. Why do bank robbers rob banks? You go where the money is and CEO’s don’t hang out in their tradeshow booths unless they are ego driven or too cheap to fly out salesmen. CEO’s hang out at the nicest, biggest bar at the Hotel. They hang there because that’s where they bump into all the other CEO’s and industry leaders. Are deals struck and alliances built while downing frosty adult beverages? Hello, McFly, are you still with me? So with all the past history of wildly successful conferences held there, one would expect the Comptel of last week to be yet another hit. Well, it was a creamsicle of a show, also known as a 50/50 bar.

In other words, the bar scene didn’t disappoint. Deals were done, cheeks were kissed by longtime friends mostly of the opposite sex, but this is 2008, so I have to be open-minded when I get a smooch around 1 am from a drunk, stubble faced dude that he is either a European PTT staffer or perhaps just really happy to see me. But real deals were being done around me all day and through the night at the lobby bar, until about 10 pm when the alcohol consumption finely reached the melting point of business taking a back seat to old stories and new versions of stories yet to happen. I can tell the industry has aged a respective ten years for everyone because the favorite topics centered around golf and fun vacations and the occasional home remodel, not like the late 80’s and early 90’s when there were more interesting topics and pursuits for the then virile crowd. That was the good part of the show. The weak part continues to be the show itself. If there was even one seminar that they would schedule that would be so compelling I felt it was a no miss lecture, I would be happily surprised. Occasionally they get it right and choose a dynamic CEO who can actually talk and entertain and, best of all, is willing to share his or her past accomplishments and failures.

That was the case a year ago when they had Arunis Chesonis of PAETEC talk about his experiences growing his once privately held company, started ten years ago with ten employees, to a 1.5 billion dollar a year nationwide CLEC with thousands of employees. If Paetec celebrated everyone’s birthday like we do at our office, they would all be downing thirty-eight slices of cake a day. Yummy, I may have to get a job there. Perhaps in IR or something where you get to talk a lot and eat at fancy restaurants. I guess the CEO job isn’t up for grabs though. It’s important for lectures to be informative, which is very challenging when you have a group like Comptel members assembled that typically have ten to twenty years each of industry experience. There just weren’t any good speakers like Arunis this year. The $500 badge was pretty much a waste of money.

And NO surprise, 1/3 of the people who attended already figured this out. They come to the conference and stayed at the hotel or nearby, but they skipped buying the Comptel pass. Is it because they were cheap? I used to think so, but now I know better because I have seen these same folks drop $200 in the Lobby bar picking up tabs for friends and strangers alike. They fly to the show first class and stay in suites. It’s not the expenditure of $500 that bothers them; it’s the lack of value they perceive in it. It’s a protest vote to skip the badge and hear this right now: Comptel is soon heading the way VON and GTM did, and I predicted accurately the demise of both. Comptel doesn’t offer value for their number one source of revenue, the conference badge. They don’t have good speakers or topics, and even the big parties are a memory of the past.

No Doobie Brothers with Dennis Miller revving up the audience like Comptel had in ‘98, no REO Speedwagon playing on the beach to all the attendees with a mammoth fireworks show as their backdrop like Comptel Acapulco ‘97. No badges also means the exhibitor hall is just about empty. How bad? How about throw a Frisbee down any aisle and you wouldn’t hit a prospect. That’s because they only let badge buyers in the Exhibit hall. By the way, exhibitors represent the second largest share of conference revenue, almost $500,000 net dollars a show for space rent because the Ballroom is given to Comptel for free by the Hotel as an inducement for the room block booking. And it’s the exhibitors that pony up an additional $100,000 to $250,000 total per show for sponsorships like breakfast buffets and mid afternoon coffee breaks and my personal favorite, the ice cream novelty stands. I can usually go back about five times for these frozen treats before I get a condescending glare from the hotel staffer.

As if they never raided for-free stuff. So, at this show, they already had 30% fewer booths than the last Orlando show, and when we come back to the exact venue next year, I predict another thirty exhibitors will have dropped out. The exhibit hall is losing relevance as well. When the only people you talk to at a tradeshow hall are other pissed off exhibitors, believe me when I say this organization has major problems and will soon cut out one of their two annual shows. The exhibit hall will be gone as well because there are some pretty angry folks who pony up money and effort to put up a good display, only to hear about the huge group of telecom people outside the hall that will never venture in because they don’t have passes. Too long an article? Hey, you only have to read this once every three months because I am cutting out shows like Comptel from my itinerary.

They just don’t matter anymore, and there are plenty of great shows like PTC, ITW, and Channel Partners. Speaking of Channel Partners (who know how to pack an exhibit hall by comping it to everyone thus pleasing the entire crowd) this festive and brilliant show is coming back to Vegas in March. Comptel staffers, who are sincerely clueless about how lowly they are thought of as a show anymore, booked their next show in unfriendly Dallas at the same time as Channel Partners so there is an overlapping conflict. Gee, I wonder which show I will choose to attend? Probably the same as everyone else. Dallas will be deserted, and LV will be the place for telecom deals and fun times.

Final comments…. Great to see some of the original telecom players back at the show after a hiatus from our sport called telephony. Seen amongst the CEO crowd was Paul Rius, the former hard charging VP of operations of Teltrust, one of the very best OSP’s of the 80’s and 90’s before operator services became another buggy whip business. He is now the CEO of Route Trader, a very successful European Minute exchange already scoring a hundred million minutes a month on the other side of the Atlantic and soon opening up on a corner location near you in the USA - with Paul at the helm. Arbinet will have a stiff competitor to deal with. Also seen at the Comptel, Mike Newkirk, the former head and almost original employee of BTI, which he built into a powerhouse East Coast carrier in the 80’s and 90’s as well. Mike is now back after developing a Boutique Hotel in Miami (not just any hotel mind you, but a $1500 a night and up, swanky, “be-seen” place, where you get fancy soap in the bathroom). Mike has walked back into the light and opened a high priced, and worth it, consulting practice.

He has seen it all and done it all and he will be a very busy guy again. I’m done with comments on Comptel; so, in the words of Bo Bo the clown, who recently passed away in the retired actor’s health care facility in LA at the ripe old age of 89, BYE KIDS.