The Com Tech forum has grown rapidly to become one of the pre-eminent channel events in Australia. IDG Australia's Mark Jones attended this year's forum, and survived to tell the tale.
Smiling faces flash across two huge video screens accompanied by driving music. Com Tech staffers caught off guard by a stealth video camera operator happily oblige with an amused or strange expression. The camera operator continues the quest, walking through the corridors capturing glimpses of life on the `inside'. A couple of guys drive remote controlled cars, while others relax after work at the company pool table.
Finally, the film cuts to black and white for the climax as David Shein, Com Tech's managing director, slowly draws a number eight in the air. A packed audience laughs in appreciation at an obvious send-up of the ABC's advertising campaign. Welcome to the opening of Com Tech Open Systems Forum 8 at the Hyatt Resort in Coolum, Queensland - an event where you learn to expect the unexpected.
In essence, the opening video captured the lighter side of an IT industry conference hosted by a systems integrator that has become firmly cemented on the `must attend' list for technology users and vendors alike.
In fact, Open Systems Forum has set the standard for successful channel marketing to the extent that Com Tech has developed a pivotal role in both the channel and IT community at large.
As Peter Hill, information services manager at South Australia's Royal Automotive Association, said: `Clearly it is seen as one of the premier IT events on the calendar in Australia. Clearly they attract, through the quality of presenters and speakers they bring to the place, a very high calibre of attendees.'
Unlike industry trade shows where resellers and their partners battle to capture the right customers' attention, Com Tech's Forum has developed its dominance in the channel to levels most resellers can only dream about.
Com Tech's David Shein described the event as `our differentiator'.
`It's a great opportunity for our customers to see what Com Tech does,' he said.
In fact, response from this year's delegates indicates it is Com Tech's single greatest marketing achievement each year. This year, the Forum gathered a total of 660 users, vendors, journalists and Com Tech staff for four days of presentations, workshops, informal meetings and the all-important late-night parties.
So what's the big deal? In short, it's a one stop business shop. The conference offers delegates a smorgasbord of technical and executive management streams including: network infrastructure; online technologies; network operating systems and messaging; videoconferencing; call centres; and system maintenance and management.
Com Tech vendor partners in attend-ance included Cisco, Microsoft, IBM/ Lotus, Tivoli Systems, Bay Networks, Novell, PictureTel, Check Point, Security Dynamics, Genesys Laboratories, Citrix, Periphone Corporation and Fuji Xerox. In addition, Com Tech's program guide contains official endorsements from high- profile user sites such as Boral Limited, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Caltex Australia and GIO Australia.
Chris Goldstone, application manager of information technology at Gold Coast City council, summed up the feeling it generates with partners. `I'm proud of the partnership we have with Com Tech, to a point where, when our strategic plans are developed or enhanced each year, I actually take them out and ask them how we are going,' he said.
While Goldstone focused on developing contacts and attending the executive streams, his networking and telecommunications manager and a tech support staffer soaked up the technical information on offer.
But the conference is not only about exchanging pleasantries. As one delegate said: `You can just come straight out and say (to a vendor): ÔI'm unhappy with the way you handled that project.' It would usually take nine meetings to get to that point.'
Nevertheless, general feeling from the majority of delegates at the Forum was summarised by two words: `relaxed environment'.
Lisa Robinson, Bay Networks' marketing manager, was one delegate who agreed with the sentiment. `You get to mingle with customers in a relaxed environment,' she said. In addition, she said the Forum is a successful marketing concept because it gathers the `right people' from all parts of the industry.
As Com Tech is Bay's largest reseller, Robinson said the reason Bay attends the forum is simple: `Our customers are here. Delegates pay, so you know they are committed (to the event).'
Geoff Wright, Microsoft Australia's organisation customer unit director (responsible for the company's channel strategies), also said it was a `relaxed environment'.
But more than that, the Forum is an opportunity to develop new relationships. `It was quite clear to Microsoft that in the past we hadn't done a good job of creating the key partnerships,' he said.
`We were engaging with a large number of resellers and trying to have a deep relationship with each and that wasn't going to work.' After selecting Com Tech as `a very successful potential partner' to meet `unfulfilled potential' from the relationship, Wright said if Microsoft did not attend the event, it could be detrimental to its business.
`For me the biggest thing that I have got out of this conference is sitting down with customers who have issues or questions or telling me about things in the past they would not like to see repeated,' he said.
`The key things out of the conference for us is we have the ability to meet the influencers of this industry.'
Gary Jackson, Cisco's managing director, was also emphatic in his support for the Forum as an opportunity to meet with its customers. `Com Tech is an extremely important partner to us. I see this as an opportunity to support them, from a funding point of view, and I see it as important to be here because there are not only Cisco customers here,' he said.
Jackson said the Forum's market value to `important enterprise accounts' is an opportunity for Cisco to get more market share. He said Cisco believes it is an effective way to spend marketing dollars. `I can be more effective in securing sales opportunities, and that's worth it,' he said.
However, life at the Forum is not all hard ball. Any delegate will testify that it's a good opportunity for serious partying. Friday and Saturday night's dinners offer vendors the opportunity to put on a real bash.
This year Microsoft kicked off Friday night's entertainment with a Scottish theme, complete with bagpipes, a `Scottish' comedian and staffers scantily clad in kilts.
Saturday night was Cisco's turn with the dining hall decked out with massive masks hanging on the walls, and bottles of tequila adorning each table. In fact, Cisco hosted a tequila night for the second year running due to popular demand - clearly evidence of the `mind-share' it is generating through this type of marketing.
The media `party'
The offer of a party each night is one reason the Forum has reached the heights of popularity with journalists - a must for any serious marketing event.
As key stakeholders in the event, journalists enjoy free flights, accommodation, food and drinks. In fact, marketing strategies ensure they also go home with a good collection of t-shirts and other vendor-labelled accessories.
But when the hard reality of the office hits the following Monday, the fun must be justified with stories. Fortunately, the smorgasbord of interviewees on offer guaranteed both IT and business press were satisfied.
Ian Grayson, an IT journalist at The Australian and one of around 20 Australian journalists at the Forum, said he was leaving the event with around four stories.
`It's good to have a mix of vendors in one place at the right time,' he said. `Other events I have been to are announcement specific and you know what you are going to write about before you get there, whereas here I didn't know what to expect.'
The general consensus from other journalists making the Forum's Media Room their home away from home was also positive as it offered a good source of news and contacts.
Grayson's only negative comment was there was not too much `hard news' this year. But according to ARN contributor and columnist Ian Yates, it's the only conference where delegates will party all night and still want to get up for the next morning's keynote presentation.
A veteran of six Com Tech forums, Yates said: `The Forum is also one of the few events where you actually learn something as well.'
For aspiring channel marketers, the Forum is certainly relationship marketing at its finest. And given that Forum 8 was completely booked out, delegates are sure to keep coming back for more.
As for the ultimate marketing dollar value for the event, Bay's Robinson said: `There is no way you could invest that amount of money if you didn't get bang for your buck.'