Take Me Out To The Hockey Game

By Gerry Blackwell

January 29, 2004

A new Wi-Fi-powered corporate suite at the New York Islanders' Nassau Coliseum is wowing visitors.

The sports palace corporate suite is usually a place where companies invite customers, prospects and partners to come and relax, schmooze and take in a little entertainment.

Future Tech Enterprise Inc. (FTEI) has a different take, though. The New York-based systems integrator has turned its own box at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, home of the National Hockey League New York Islanders, into the Future Suite, a prototype for a new breed of high-tech office-away-from-the-office.

"The concept," says FTEI president and CEO Bob Venero, "is to take these suites and turn them into business suites -- to business enable them."

Wi-Fi is at the heart of the Future Suite, and in keeping with the firm's determination to be leading edge in all things, it's using 802.11g ORiNOCO gear from Proxim to enable everything from high-speed VPN access back to corporate networks, to video conferencing to IP telephony.

FTEI is also providing Wi-Fi connectivity in 31 other suites, in the Coliseum's press area and near team dressing rooms.

Hockey is not a sport normally associated with technological sophistication -- or any kind of sophistication, some would argue -- but it's no coincidence that the Future Suite took root at the Coliseum. The rink and the team are now owned by Charles Wong, retired founder of software giant Computer Associates.

"He's a magnet for high-tech people," Islanders senior vice president Paul Lancey says of his boss. "He brings them by the suite and they're all enthralled. The suite is very cool. But it also provides real value."

That was the idea Venero sold to Wong -- to make it easier for companies to actually do business in the suite, and not just when there's a game on. FTEI has hosted political fund raisers and marketing focus group sessions on non-game days, and signed three contracts in the suite so far.

It certainly packs all the technology needed to do business, including wirelessly-connected 42-inch plasma screens that can be used for PowerPoint presentations, an all-in-one printer-fax-scanner device, cordless IP phones, and a video conferencing system from Polycom that also runs over the 802.11g bridge.

Equipping the suite with three 42-inch plasma screens, each of which sells today for thousands of dollars, may smack of shock and awe tactics, but Venero points out that costs will come down for much of this technology.

FTEI usually reserves one of the big screens for business, one to show game action, one to show a video feed from another source. At one game early in the season, he had the World Series showing on the second screen.

Then there are smaller flat screen panels in the washrooms -- "one standing, one sitting," Venero says with some delicacy. Visitors need never miss a minute of the game.

To top it off, the Future Suite is currently showcasing a cutting-edge new 3D monitor from Sharp Electronics that doesn't require viewers to wear 3D glasses. "You could manipulate a DNA strand in 3D," Venero suggests. Or more likely see the puck come right out of the screen at you.

Despite the snazzy entertainment technology, and the luxury decor -- marble floors and rosewood paneling -- the suites really are designed for business first.

"You tell the customer to come to the suite an hour before a game," explains Venero. "'Let us show you our wares. And after that's done you can watch the game. But, oh, by the way, if you like what you see and want to sign, you can do it right there in the suite.' Why wait? That's business enabling."

Venero calls the Future Suite initiative and the Wi-Fi coverage in the other suites and other areas of the arena a "joint venture" with the Islanders, although it's not clear how much of a stake the team actually has in it yet. Lancey characterizes FTEI as a suite holder and team sponsor.

Venero says that "other suite holders are in absolute awe" of his suite, but none apparently has ordered up anything similar yet. The idea is that the Islanders will use the Future Suite as a model for corporate suites in a new Coliseum the team is planning to build on the same site, probably within two years.

Venero implies this is a done deal. Lancey seems less sure. "Obviously this is the first one we've done," he says. "We have to tweak it a little bit, see that people actually get value out of it. Sometimes you blow smoke at yourself. But we're definitely strongly considering making this part of the format for the new facility."

While that may sound like something less than a ringing endorsement, Venero insists the suite has already delivered solid business benefits to both the Islanders club and his company.

"It excites the people [the team] brings here," he says. "It lends credibility to the idea that hockey is on the cutting edge, that the Coliseum is on the cutting edge."

The commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman, has visited, and was suitably wowed, Lancey notes. Lancey is more interested in the bottom line, though.

He's hoping the high-tech bells and whistles and the FTEI concept of how to use the suites for business will encourage more companies to lease suites from the Islanders when the team opens its new facility, and more existing suite holders to stick with the team.

For FTEI, the Future Suite is a showcase for the concept of the business-enabled corporate suite, which the company hopes to sell to other sports venues. It is also good advertising for the firm in general.

"It has drawn many new customers that wouldn't normally have done business with us," Venero says. "When they see what we've created here, they want to do business with us."

Wi-Fi is crucial to the "value" the Future Suite delivers. For one thing, it makes it possible to add high-speed networking in a building like the Coliseum where wiring would have been prohibitively expensive or impossible, according to Venero. (It's not clear, though, why wired networking technology couldn't be built in to an all-new facility.)

More important, it allows visitors and corporate employees to work untethered in the suite. Visitors can bring their Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs or laptops and connect to the office LAN to check their e-mail while watching the game. FTEI was careful to configure the network to allow sufficient VPN capacity for all suites, Venero points out.

The IP phones let visitors and employees keep in touch while roaming freely in the suite.

Wi-Fi will also likely power additional applications in future. One idea is to allow suite visitors who use valet parking to communicate with parking staff carrying wireless PDAs to let them know when they want their cars brought up to the door.

FTEI is also talking to the Coliseum's catering contractor about letting suite holders order food wirelessly. Fans in the stands might even be able to see instant replays on their Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs in the future.

While all the technology jammed into the suite makes a big impression, costs are not huge, Venero and Lancey insist. Equipping a basic Future Suite would cost $25,000 to $30,000, Lancey estimates.

"If you wanted to go soup to nuts, though, you'd get close to six figures."



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