10 Years Ago Today: –

YOU’VE got to hand it to the Americans; they certainly know how to do things in style. I’m in Orlando for the Computer Associates World Conference 2001, or CA World as it is known to the thousands of techies who make the annual pilgrimage to hear leader Charles Wang and CEO Sanjay Kumar reveal the latest, fastest, most innovative, shiniest, most complex and least understandable products created by the company.

I came on a mission to meet the men behind the company – and to enjoy a one-to-one with veteran news legend Walter Cronkite, who was delivering a keynote speech (euphemistically referred to as a “fireside chat” by event organisers) – but it appears that the Scottish contingent doesn’t register on the radar of the $6billion American organisation. Like the proverbial elephant, we won’t forget the snub.

I digress. Despite our lack of clout we’ve been impressed by the scale of the conference, it’s not something I’ve seen the likes of back home. There are literally tens of thousands of people here – certainly upwards of 40,000 and the event is rumoured to have cost a cool $20million.

With comedians and actors performing the CA equivalent of “Whose line is it anyway?” and a magician on Sun Microsystems stand interspersing sleight of hand and headless women in boxes with a well-rehearsed script about Sun’s stuff, it’s been entertaining to say the least. Practical magic indeed.

The keynote speeches, in a hall the size of an airport hanger with smoke, lasers, strobe lights, plasma screens and an atmosphere more conducive to a Britney Speirs concert were impressive. But I did draw the line at joining the CA World corporate sung, sung by loyal CA employees (should that be fanatical?) to the tune of YMCA by the Village People.

Anyway, it didn’t take us long to realise the smoke and mirrors were for far more than just show. Their real purpose was to camouflage the biggest story of the conference: the bid by American billionaire businessman Sam Wyly to remove the existing executive board with his claims that they aren’t delivering shareholder value. This bitter boardroom battle will be played out on the front pages of the world’s business press, regardless of attempts this week to play down the impact and quell the copy.

But our lack of access to the men that matter meant I could look further afield to add to this week’s column. I didn’t have to stray far from the poolside of my hotel – just across the road, actually – to appreciate the Orange County Convention Centre where CA World is being staged. Orange County is one of the biggest convention centres in the States. Costing a whopping $748m to build and stretching almost half a mile in length, the Center is truly awesome. It boasts exhibition space of 1.1million square feet and 313,000 square feet of meeting spaces with an annexe of 260,000 square feet being built just across the way on Orlando’s International Drive.

It’s typically American: big and bold and luxurious with state of the art technology, 5-start hotel quality restrooms and recycle bins for refuse every few yards. It was built as part of the local tourism and economic strategy, slap bang in the middle of Orlando’s Disney style theme parks, in a bid to balance the seasonal effects of tourism with all year round business events. I was impressed; attention to detail was skilful. And the security guards acted as greeters, welcoming the delegates to the event. I was hard pushed to imagine Rock Steady or Group 4 delivering the same level of warm and friendly customer service back home.

But it got me thinking. We could learn something here. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow boast excellent conference facilities. Both cities have excellent hotels and restaurants. Both cities are home to a number of UK and global organisations that currently hold their annual conferences further afield, oft in sunnier climes. Scotland has a huge opportunity to attract world quality events and exhibitions to use our facilities, starting with businesses that live right on our doorstep.

So with a new broom sweeping through visitscotland, or whatever it happens to be called today (I’ve been away for six days and based on previous performance it could have changed twice in that time), we should consider a two-pronged strategy aimed at increasing both tourism and input to the economy.

Who knows, if we’re good enough we might even persuade some of these organisations to make Scotland their HQ – without Locate in Scotland pouring pots of tax-payers cash into their pockets. A touch of practical magic required, I think.