Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Technological changes present opportunities to communicate: Computers can help, but with all the gadgets in the world the most important thing is to see and hear properly, says Steve Homer

ONCE UPON a time, if you wanted to stage a conference you found a room that was big enough, got some tables and chairs and a flip chart and that was about it. Today things have changed but with all the gadgets in the world there is one thing the experts agree on - conferences are about communication; lose sight of that and you are heading for trouble.

'For big conferences there used to be a tendency to try to get the audience to go 'wow' with some big effect but now meetings are not as dominated by technological factors. Face-to-face communications are more important,' says Vanessa Cotton, a partner in the Event Organisation Company.

Probably the most important technological advances for conferences have centred around the most fundamental factors - allowing people to be heard properly and allowing delegates to see presentations properly.

'Sound technology is so much better than it used to be. You can run a complicated sound system, six simultaneous translations, roving mikes (for questions and answers) and, as long as you do proper rehearsals, with modern systems you should never get feedback,' says Ms Cotton. However, the existing set-up in some venues can be quite ancient and in some areas, for example Eastern Europe, systems can be very poor. Here the best bet is to get in a good sound contractor to build on the existing system or avoid it completely.

Paul Swan, managing director of Spectrum Communications, a major live events production company, says computers have added a lot to the capability of sound systems. 'Computers can be used to model an acoustic environment. This means you can use anywhere - large exhibition halls, marquees, one of our competitors even had a meeting inside a disused gasometer and you can imagine what the acoustic problems were like there.' The computerised systems first analyse the acoustic properties of the setting and then adjust the output of strategically placed loudspeakers so that the best sound is received by everyone.

Another area where computers are making dramatic inroads is in presentation. Computer graphics can be incredibly sophisticated now but, more important, they can be excellent communications tools. One of the great advantages of computer graphics is that 'slides' can be changed just minutes before a speech is given and the effects will still look very professional. But the system used has to be simple to operate or the person giving the speech will find the technology gets in the way of the message he or she is trying to get over.

Ms Cotton sees computer graphics very much as a replacement for overhead projectors (OHPs), which she describes as 'the bane of a conference organiser's life'. They can be scruffy and difficult to read if the text is too small but do, she admits, allow speakers to keep control of the information they are giving. 'Speakers adore OHPs,' she says. One way of solving the problem and allowing speakers to draw last-minute diagrams, if they must, is to use a computer-driven panel that sits on top of the OHP.

The panel can be simply lifted off if the presenter wants to show any last-minute, hand- drawn information.

Projector systems have come a long way in the last few years and for high- quality computer graphics TV projection systems from companies like Barco and Seleco can give really dramatic effects. But if you really want to go the whole hog, says Mr Swan, high- definition television (HDTV) projectors give stunning effects and are ideal for showing a mixture of film, computer-generated images and perhaps specially shot HDTV material. If you are dealing with a major launch or the like, print images can be taken from the HDTV footage and used to produce high-quality programmes or souvenirs.

Finally, there is one place technology has made significant advances where conference organisers all too often forget to look: written material. Using good word-processing software, electronic mail and modern desktop publishing software it is possible to produce written support material much more quickly and attractively.

Ms Cotton is involved with a European conference where it was necessary to translate material into six different languages, approval was sought on the translations by electronic mail and all material was electronically sent to the designer within 24 hours.

One way of using technology to deal with conferences is to get rid of them altogether. Satellite conferences and video conferences are a possibility for small groups. As prices for video conference lines and equipment drop, dispersed conferences could become a real possibility and the problems of finding a good venue could disappear.