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Air Force tech conference goes virtual, but still benefits Montgomery, Ala.

In an Aug. 26, 2019, Airman 1st Class Jaxon Fogarty tries his hand with a virtual reality display at the Air Force Information Technology & Cyberpower Conference trade show. This year, with Americans routinely wearing another kind of mask, it will be a virtual conference.

CASSANDRA CORNWELL/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BRAD HARPER | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: August 21, 2020

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — At this time each year, the Air Force Technology & Cyberpower conference fills the streets of downtown Montgomery with as many as 6,000 people, including some of the top tech minds from the military and the business world. They come here to share the latest innovations while spending money at local restaurants and hotels.

A lot of money.

The event's annual economic impact is more than the total expected pandemic-related shortfall in the city's 2020 budget, and it's just one of the dozens of massive conferences that aren't meeting physically this year in a downtown powered by convention and tourism business.

Instead, more than 40,000 people will attend a virtual version of AFITC that starts Monday. All of those people aren't actually coming to Montgomery, but Montgomery is still coming to them, and local leaders say it's still paying off in other ways.

For days, military and business leaders will hear from the people involved in Montgomery's surging private tech and startup scene. They'll learn about local innovation hub MGMWerx, hear about the whitewater park being developed just outside the gates of Maxwell Air Force Base, and see packages highlighting the Equal Justice Initiative's museum and memorial. They'll see presentations from people like Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean and Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce President Anna Buckalew.

"We have four days to affect strategic messaging to 40,000 people," said retired Brig. Gen. Trent Edwards, who now leads military and community development efforts for the Chamber. "We can still host the conference."

The Air Force's tech conference started here in 1984 and has gone through several evolutions over the years, but there's never been one like this.

The virtual environment meant new security concerns that had to be addressed so that the Air Force's senior leaders could hold conversations. The days are shorter and stretched out over a longer period of time to avoid "zoom fatigue," TechMGM Executive Director Charisse Stokes said.

The sessions will be available on demand, meaning next week isn't the beginning and end of the conference. "The plan is for a lot of Air Force units to say, ‘Hey today is an AFITC day.’ And that may happen in October," Stokes said.

None of that will mean more immediate business for local hotels, which are struggling to weather a nationwide downturn that's hit downtown Montgomery especially hard. In July 2019 the occupancy rate in downtown hotels stood at 95%. Last month it was 31%.

Dawn Hathcock, who leads convention and tourism efforts for the Chamber, said they're working on new approaches "that align with the new ways and reasons that people will meet and travel" on the other side of the pandemic. That includes appealing to corporate groups and travelers who are seeking authentic civil rights and social justice experiences.

Hathcock said its all complicated by the fact that "there's no magic switch" that flips on a certain date to end the pandemic, but that they're already closing meetings and convention business for 2022 and beyond.

Meanwhile, leaders say future versions of AFITC may incorporate some of the changes that were put in place for this year's virtual conference. That includes the shorter days and a heavier emphasis on sessions that are live-streamed or available on demand.

The latter change could open the conference to more types of businesses, Edwards said.

"That’s where the smart money is," he said. "Everybody gets a front row seat."

bharper1@gannett.com

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