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Pivot to the Pacific

AFCEA West 2013 attendees do more with less

Despite the ongoing ban on federal travel, 10,000 people in the defense industry made it to San Diego for this year’s AFCEA West conference.

This year marked the conference's 22nd year, and some 340 defense and information technology exhibitors dotted the San Diego Convention Center's floor this week.

One planned exhibitor that canceled its booth due to budgetary woes was Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), according to an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) spokeswoman.

Some disappointed exhibitors that planned on getting prime face time with federal clients like SPAWAR described this year’s conference as “controversial."

“In what other industry can you keep the customer away from the provider and expect them to come together with a solution that's good for everybody?” said Benito Hobson, president of the San Diego AFCEA chapter.

While there are travel restrictions, a lot of local commands are in San Diego, pointed out Hobson. Officials from exhibitor Cambium Networks left the Convention Center, when possible, to meet with federal clients in San Diego.

“I can get to them and visit this week whether they come to the show or not. Proximity is still compelling,” said Robert Miller, director of federal markets at U.K.-based Cambium Networks.

The broadband vendor, which spun off from Motorola in late 2011, enables federal customers to provide more sophisticated networks and complex deployments.

“We are all going to have to become more resourceful like the government is becoming. There’s less to work with but there’s still a mission to accomplish,” Miller said.

SPAWAR made up for its lack of a booth with several seminars on the exhibit floor, including one entitled “How to do business with SPAWAR,” which drew a packed crowd that was hungry for tips.

Following the presentation, a line quickly formed of attendees wanting to swap cards with Mark McLain, SPAWAR deputy, Office of Small Business Programs. There was also a meet-and-greet at AFCEA West with the SSC Pacific portfolio management board.

Brocade's (Nasdaq: BRCD) modest 20-foot booth showed off the latest and greatest technologies in the software-defined networking world -- it just wished there were more government clients walking by to view it.

“As vendors we of course want to use this [conference] as an educational and marketing tool to help us connect with customers,” said Mark Premo, Brocade’s business development executive for the U.S. Navy and the Western United States.

The San Jose-based company, which has about $2.2 billion in annual sales, had a suite upstairs in the Convention Center to host meetings with its customers and potential customers.

The Navy, which used to represent just 2 percent of its Defense Department business, has expanded to account for about 20 to 25 percent. The DoD makes up 60 to 70 percent of its federal business.

“The DoD business has always been the lion’s share of what we do,” Premo said.

The company's 150-person federal unit is based in Herndon, Va., where they can hear the nearby grumblings on Capitol Hill of the military's incoming cutbacks.

“This is the time to get close to customers and understand what specifications and requirements are. The money will be coming out in larger chunks in the latter half of the year,” said Premo.

It's also time to focus on offerings that will help save the government money. That's the game plan for big data giant EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC).

"This week the focus is on how customers optimize infrastructure with cost challenges they are faced with,” said John Custer, director of Federal Strategic Missions and Programs for EMC.

EMC's whisper suite got a lot of foot traffic this week with customers they had hoped to get in front of.

The decision to set up a towering and sizeable booth, sitting prominently upon entrance into the exhibit hall, was made six months ago by marketing and it was too late to downsize when EMC got word that few government clients would be walking the floor due to the travel restrictions.

As a result, EMC followed the trend of other exhibitors: driving to nearby Navy customers to do on-site briefings.

The 50,000-person cloud computing company has a family of technologies under its umbrella, including software maker VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW).

“A lot of companies are one-trick ponies. We are across the horizon," said Custer.

While diversified companies like EMC should fare well during this defense downturn, small businesses might not be so lucky unless Capitol Hill can come to a resolution on where the budget stands.

“It’s really killing small businesses. We are hanging on by our fingernails. We consider ourselves part of the warfighting community, but man, are they making it hard for us,” said Hobson.

Custer predicts that defense conferences will start to shift toward a regional model, located in areas industry can fly into.

“It will morph into the areas that are large concentrations of defense facilities, with San Diego being a leader. Washington, D.C. will continue to have a number of conferences there,” Custer said.

AFCEA West's theme centered on the Navy’s plan to pivot to the Pacific, and Hobson said San Diego is in a prime position to capitalize on that plan.

“What we are doing and where we are located is an integral part of capability going forward,” said Hobson.

Some conferences, however, are unable to survive in tough times. The DON IT Conference West Coast 2013, which was scheduled for Jan. 28 to 30 to coincide with AFCEA West, was canceled.

Several others have been axed by the Army, he added.

“I think we will do well next year,” said Hobson. “As people are already making decisions for 2014, this will be high up on the radar.”

In addition, he confirmed that MILCOM '13, scheduled to take place in San Diego in the fall, is still a go.

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