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From bullets to bytes: U.S. Special Operations Command’s military conference goes virtual amid pandemic

Howard Strahan tests video conferencing equipment to be used during the first virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. It is the largest defense industry conference for U.S. Special Operations Command and will be held online and broadcasting from SOFWERX in Ybor City. On May 6, SOFIC staff members work out the technical details for the online event. (Luis Santana/Times/TNS)

The U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, geared up for its annual Tampa vendors conference this year by turning the SOFWERX tech hub in Ybor City into a TV station.

In-person networking with companies and academics interested in doing business with the military at the Tampa Convention Center is out of the question in the midst of a global pandemic.

Instead, the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, presented by the command and the National Defense Industrial Association, will be fully virtual for the first time. The conference runs May 11 to the 15.

“It’s a different type of event,” said Christine Klein, senior vice president of meetings, divisions and partnerships for the association.

Instead of company executives and military officials walking through an exhibit hall full of weaponry, submersibles and computer systems, they’ll be watching companies demonstrate products and services online. The military command will broadcast the presentations from Ybor.

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The conference is all about creating a two-way exchange of ideas to support the U.S. Special Operations Command, which trains and equips units including the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders and more. Often those exchanges happen naturally at by bumping into someone in the hallways or over cocktails, said Hawk Carlisle, the industry association president and chief executive, and a retired Air Force general.

The association had been planning the event since last year’s conference, but quickly coordinated with the command a month ago to find a platform that could host thousands of participants online. The association also wanted options such as live recordings and digital rooms for one-one-one meetings, Carlisle added. Last year’s conference drew more than 16,000 attendees and 440 exhibitors.

The hope, Carlisle noted, is that the new conference format will allow more companies to participate, because it eliminates travel and lodging expenses.

As of Friday morning, more than 3,500 people were registered to attend, with 91 companies participating in the virtual industry showcase, said Evamarie Socha, association spokeswoman.

Jim Smith, acquisition executive for the U.S. Special Operations Command, hopes companies that don’t traditionally attend, such as those that work in artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analysis, are more inclined to take part this year with the new format.

It was critical that some form of the conference take place, Smith said, because special operations forces are still deployed, and they still have product and service needs.

Also, given that the command drives $7 billion a year into the national economy, Smith recognizes the importance of making sure that smaller businesses, in particular, are aware of business opportunities with the command.

For Tampa’s Visual Awareness Technologies & Consulting company, the conference serves as a big advertisement, said Brooks Davis, product business development and sales manager.

The company provides training and exercise services, such as creating realistic military training off-base by setting up land lease agreements and making arrangements with local law enforcement. It also provides software in support of these exercises, Davis said.

A longtime conference participant, the company prepared for this year’s virtual event by updating its website, giving easier access to contact information that can keep conversations going.

“Now it’s going to a very Amazon way of doing things,” Davis said. “You don’t get to lift something up and touch it and feel it.”

He and others lament another loss in this year’s conference.

In previous years, the Tampa conference has combined with the International Special Operations Forces Conference, which features demonstrations of boats and helicopters in the waters between the Tampa Convention Center and Tampa General Hospital.

Due to the pandemic, those events will have to wait until next year when conference organizers and participants hope they can convene in person.

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© 2020 the Tampa Bay Times