The Y2K Threat

Just because your high-tech employer squashed its millennium bug years ago, don't presume that your meeting and event suppliers are disinfected as well. In fact, many have not yet resolved their Year 2000 computer problem. From registration data to airline and hotel reservations to destination management company schedules, your meeting data resides on software programs that may or may not continue to function 18 months from now.

"Oh, I've never thought about it that way. I'm going to talk to my contracts people as soon as I hang up," said Casey Strader, manager of trade shows and conference events for Sterling Commerce, Dublin, Ohio, echoing the reaction of many meeting and event planners when asked about the impact of the millennium bug on meetings, trade shows, and corporate events.

"Most planners are not aware of the problem or they've dumped it entirely in the laps of their MIS [management information systems] departments," says technology trainer, speaker, and consultant Corbin Ball, CMP, vice president of HMR Associates, Bellingham, Wash. Only one meetings association, Ball says, the International Association for Exhibition Management, is tackling the issue. The association ran a special seminar on the subject at its June meeting.

Optimistic planners like M. Kroner, manager of trade shows/events/leads for Exabyte Corp. in Denver may well be right. "My company has taken care of that issue, and I expect my suppliers to have done the same," he says. But a presumption of compliance could expose some planners, their organizations, and their attendees to a host of problems.

What's the Problem? What is the "millennium bug," otherwise known as the Y2K problem? It starts with a decision made in the early days of computers. In order to save memory, and because they assumed their programs would be replaced regularly, programmers decided to represent years with two digits instead of four. The first two digits--1 and 9--were assumed. But lots of those programs have not been replaced, and at one second past midnight on the first day of the year 2000, those programs will, as far as they "know," be running in the year 00--that is, 1900. So what will happen? It's not exactly clear. Some computers may freeze like a block of ice, making data and software inaccessible. Others may cancel reservations or contracts.

Excluding computers loaded with Apple Computer's operating system, which doesn't have the millennium problem, Y2K has the potential to wreak havoc with any computer, including those used for air traffic control, hotel room reservations, function space allocation, environmental controls, hotel room assignments for housing bureaus, travel reservations, multimedia presentations, and accounting functions.

What's the worst that could happen? You don't want to hear the scenarios predicted by a number of Chicken Littles--usually Y2K consultants. The truth of the matter is that nothing dire is probable, but problems are inevitable if this millennium gremlin is left untreated. And not every glitch will pop up on January 1, 2000. They could occur throughout the year. Some specialists predict that the glitches could arise even as late as 2003.

It's a difficult MIS problem, but that doesn't mean meeting planners should throw up their hands. Lawyers are predicting an avalanche of litigation over this issue, and planners who ignore the problem could open up their organization to liability. For example, let's say an exhibitor spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to display products at a resellers' conference, but the convention center's air conditioning controls fail to work because of a Y2K-related computer system failure. The hall becomes too hot, and attendees leave. The exhibitor might have a case against the conference organizer for breach of contract.

A Vaccination? While the problem appears overwhelming, every planner has a skill that can help to inoculate meetings, events, and exhibit programs to protect them from the bug: The ability to ask pointed questions. Here are four key steps in the vaccination process.

1. Talk to your organization's MIS people as well as your hardware and software vendors. Ask if your equipment and software are compliant with the International Standard Organization's Y2K recommendations. Be aware of any hybrid additions to your software, warns E.J. Siwek, a software designer and head of Meeting Professionals International's technical advisory committee. A solution for a general software program will not necessarily make corrections in software added at a later date.

2. Work with your MIS people and attorneys to develop a questionnaire for suppliers--hotels, convention centers, airlines, travel agencies, multimedia producers, exhibition managers, and contractors. The questionnaire should determine when suppliers will be Y2K compliant. If a supplier is not already tackling the problem, there might be problems down the line. Computer industry analysts anticipate a deluge of companies looking for Y2K experts next year, creating a shortage and lengthening the lead times needed for correcting the problem.

3. In addition to a questionnaire, consider adding a clause to all future contracts that protects you in case of a Y2K glitch. Contract language might ask suppliers to guarantee that its computer systems "will correctly process, store, and display data notwithstanding changes in day, week, month, year, decade, century, or millennium according to the Gregorian calendar."

4. Continue to follow up. Call several months before the meeting to make sure that the supplier is Y2K compliant.

Suppliers Scramble Many industry suppliers are working hard on the issue. They have been doctoring their hardware and software, and some are entering the final stages of rendering the bug helpless.

Airlines: Dependent on computers for safety and reservations, the airline industry has pursued compliance aggressively. For example, Tom Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, says that the airline's critical functions should be compliant by the middle of this year. He also noted that the airline is confident that the FAA will have its ducks in a row by January 1, 2000. "Our intent is to be flying in January 2000."

In early February, Northwest Airlines became the third airline (following KLM and Lufthansa) to say it would ground flights on January 1, 2000, if the millennium bug was not worked out of various systems, particularly air traffic control and radar systems. It's announcement raised eyebrows but concerns may be premature.

"Yes, we are concerned about compliance with the [Federal Aviation Authority]," says Tom Browne, who is heading up an oversight committee for the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C. "Having said that, we also are working with the FAA and looking at its plans. The situation is not as dire as everyone once thought. The FAA has completed 8,000 hours of testing of its computers and not one of them has experienced a single Y2K failure." Browne says the initial reports regarding the FAA's computers were based on dated information. Throughout the year, he will assess the FAA's Y2K compliance program and will have an industry report ready by November.

Hotels: For hotels, like other vendors, the heat is on. "Hotel reservation systems and global distribution systems that are not Y2K compliant risk significant losses if these systems fail to book hotel rooms. Reservation data could possibly be rejected due to non-recognition of the 2000 date," says Karin Wacaser of THISCO service division of Pegasus Systems Inc. in Dallas. The company is in the process of designing a program specifically for testing whether or not a system is Y2K compliant. Beginning midyear, it will run certification tests with its 100 hotel company customers, representing 26,000 properties in 150 countries.

Individual hotel companies also are hunting for the bug. Hilton Hotel Corp., for example, has been searching for its Y2K gremlins for more than 18 months. "There's a lot to do," says Joe Durocher, senior vice president and chief information officer. He notes that the company has begun to determine which of its computer systems are Y2K compliant and to take steps to correct those that aren't. Hilton is also contacting vendors and customers with whom it exchanges data. "We are keeping our eyes peeled for anomalies," says Durocher. "We also have received queries from customers who are asking how we plan to be Y2K compliant."

Hyatt Corp. has been knee-deep in the compliance issue for two years, according to Bob Bansfield, the chain's director of MIS based in Chicago. He said the chain's primary systems would be compliant by June 1998. Once those are fixed, the company will work on its secondary systems and plans to complete its Y2K certification process by the end of this year. Hyatt too has received correspondence from customers regarding its Y2K certification program. To answer customer questions, the company is creating a document that explains its compliance program.

Convention Centers:"Our customers have asked us to certify their systems as being Y2K compliant," says Dieter Ungerboeck, president of Ungerboeck Systems International (USI), St. Louis. USI has installed software in more than 100 convention centers, making it one of the most widely used. "Convention centers have been booking meetings well into the 21st century for a long time, so the level of awareness is high," says Ungerboeck. In addition to making the software compliant with the International Standard Organization's Y2K recommendations, the company's upgrade includes a gatekeeper that prevents anyone from transferring data to the convention center's system from a computer that is not ISO Y2K compliant. He suggests that everyone do the same.

Convention centers are also attacking the problem individually. "We are in the process of upgrading and replacing any system that contained the problem, and the new systems will be in place before we hit the year 2000," says John Devona, director of marketing for McCormick Place in Chicago. Even small facilities are ferreting out the bug. According to a directive from Merritt Wolfe, vice president of informative systems for SMG, the management company of the Centrum Centre, in Worcester, Mass., all computer-controlled building operation systems are being identified. Then vendors will be instructed to make the facility Y2K compliant. "It is my objective to have all noncompliant building operation systems identified, along with the cost of making them compliant, including replacement systems if necessary, by June 1, 1998," says Wolfe.

Travel Companies: Carlson Marketing company has set up a global committee to analyze its compliance. It expects to have the problem solved by the year 2000, according to Jane Wallbridge, senior director of travel, for the Carlson Marketing Group Travel, Toronto.

Mark Bondy, vice president ofWeynad, Burk & Bondy, Traverse City, Mich., says his company has all new computer hardware and is moving into a new airline reservation system, all Y2K compliant. "We plan to review the existing applications late in 1998 to see if they have been upgraded and make adjustments at that time," he notes.

Suppliers are working against the clock to rid themselves of Y2K bugs, but few experts believe that every solution will be 100 percent effective. For planners, the key is to know how their business uses computers and exchanges data, ask questions, put contractual protections in place, and follow up.