How Fairfax Fought to Win a World
By Beth Burkstrand
With all the souped-up marketing, VIP security and hefty ticket prices, you might think Fairfax County is hosting the Olympics. But the top organizer of the grand gathering that begins today, the World Congress on Information Technology, doesn't think that's an accurate comparison.
"I have been involved in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics . . . the 1994 World Cup and the Goodwill games in Russia this is much more complex," World Congress chief executive Jim Poisant said.
More complex, certainly, for Poisant, who has been run ragged since 1995, when area officials persuaded the world's main international technology association to hold its biennial convocation in Fairfax County. More than 1,700 technology executives and government officials from around the world are due to attend the gathering, which runs until Wednesday, organizers say.
Winning hosting rights was just the first step. Over the next few years, Poisant and a team of U.S. business and government representatives traveled to dozens of countries, schmoozing with technology decision-makers there and spending millions of dollars at home and abroad to build participation in the event, all with the hope that people who came to the conference would eventually open facilities and create jobs here.
The fruits of the conference will soon be clear, according to Virginia development officials. They say that they will soon announce deals with international technology companies that were drawn to the area in part by the conference.
The drive to bring international exposure to Fairfax County's burgeoning technology industry began in the early 1990s, according to Patricia Woolsey, chairman of the Fairfax Economic Development Authority. "When we started to see through some market research how big international trade was" in the Washington area, it "became apparent that we needed to do something locally that would attract global attention," she said.
Area technology business leaders were pondering the same issue. George Newstrom, corporate vice president at Electronic Data Systems, a major employer in the area, and at the time a development authority member, said, "My biggest concern was that we have a lot of richness in this part of the world and a lot of the world wasn't really aware."
In 1995, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors gave the development authority $200,000 to attract a global technology event, and government and business officials began comparing notes. It was then that a concerted push to bring the World Congress to Fairfax began.
"It was a fortuitous coming together of people who had parallel ambitions," said Harris Miller, president of the World Information Technology and Services Alliance, the 28-country federation of national technology associations that hosts the World Congress. He also heads the Information Technology Association of America, the group's U.S. member, which has its headquarters in Arlington.
When Miller came to ITAA in mid-1995, he heard that the 1998 conference still had no home and began discussions with the chairman of the international organization. Newstrom, who had ties to Fairfax and the U.S. association, helped organize meetings with the overseas body that summer. "Here is an entity that was looking for an event and here is another that was looking for a location. It was a global love fest from the beginning," Newstrom said.
Had he had more time, Miller said, he would have canvassed for other potential U.S. sites more aggressively. But he went with nearby Fairfax County largely because it was the only jurisdiction eager to make the pitch to the world association on such short notice.
There was a problem, though: Fairfax County had no convention center. Organizers decided to ask the president of George Mason University if the campus could be the site. Harris said that concerned him because he feared the congress would mistakenly be seen as an academic conference because of its location.
In spite of that concern, and the fact that Fairfax County had never hosted a major international event, Miller joined a delegation headed by Woolsey that traveled in November 1995 to Seoul to deliver a sales pitch to a WITSA committee that was picking the 1998 site.
Fairfax competed with Taiwan, Australia and India. Among the requests put to the American delegation: details of the life of George Mason, the American independence leader after whom the university was named.
To Miller's slight surprise, Fairfax came out the victor in large part, Woolsey says, because of the area's high concentration of tech companies. Today, it has roughly 2,000 firms employing 60,000 people, according to county officials.
But simply getting the conference wasn't good enough for Fairfax development officials. They wanted the conference to be the biggest ever, in size and stature. They got to work. Newstrom even lent an EDS executive, James Poisant, to organize the conference.
In January 1996, Poisant and representatives from the ITAA and Fairfax Economic Development set up a nonprofit organization, which raised about $5.8 million from government and private companies for the conference. The federal government and the state of Virginia each anted up $1 million. The Washington Post Co. is among the corporate sponsors.
Conference representatives flew to Brazil, China, France, Greece and numerous other countries to sing the praises of the meeting and lobby high-level tech officials to attend. Basic admission is $1,250 per person.
Organizers say that 2½ years later their efforts have paid off. Oracle Corp. Chairman Lawrence J. Ellison and Dell Computer Corp. founder Michael S. Dell are among the industry speakers. Also on the list are former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both hired through a speaker's bureau.
Scotland Yard, the Secret Service and local police forces have been working to ensure the safety of international officials.
The conference has not won universal endorsement in the U.S. industry, however. Big names such as Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr. won't be there.
Some executives here wonder if the conference will live up to the Olympic-sized promises of attracting tech businesses here. Raul Fernandez, chief executive of World Wide Web developer Proxicom Inc., said, "I don't think any one event is going to have as long lasting a legacy as the entrepreneurs that are starting small businesses every day."
But Woolsey says the conference already has had a positive effect. After the county was selected as the site, the international group hosting the congress decided to locate its headquarters in Fairfax, bringing with it a worldwide list of technology contacts that officials hope will help attract more investment to the region.
Four or five tech company "prospects," defined as ones that have reached the point of looking at such things as office space and tax rates, are looking in Fairfax, she said. Virginia Commerce Secretary Barry DuVal said his office has already seen the advantages of the conference, alluding to business deals soon to be announced.
And for Poisant, who has left his EDS post to head a company organizing the next World Congress in Taiwan, "it is impossible to imagine that Fairfax would not take its rightful place in terms of the world community" once the 1998 World Congress is over.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company