Special Operations military conference goes virtual

Combat demonstrations and military vehicle displays usually attract crowds of observers each year during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), but concern over large gatherings due to COVID-19 has forced the event to move online. 

It's going the way of other big events in the Bay Area, from the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to Wrestlemania and it's taking its economic impact with it.

This week, the Tampa Convention Center was set to host the annual military conference, which brings thousands of visitors to the city. Rather than cancel, those leading the SOFIC have converted the conference to a virtual format.

Last year, it brought more than 16,000 attendees and 440 exhibitors. It's a meeting of the minds between MacDill's U.S. Special Operations Command, defense industry partners, and academics.

"This virtual event is really important," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman. "It gives us an opportunity to convey to not only industry partners, but also members of the academic community, what we need, the areas we need help in here at Special Operations Command to make sure we equip our forces with the latest and greatest technology to meet our future mission."

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It's no easy feat to take a week's worth of defense industry presentations and demonstrations of war-fighting equipment and translate them into an online, interactive broadcast. But they're finding a way to do it.

Inside Ybor City's SOFWERX tech hub, about a dozen wired spaces are now interactive presentation rooms. 4,000 online attendees will listen to live speakers and type questions.

"Maritime matters to the equipment that our pilots use," Hawkins said, describing some of the topics of discussion. "We really wanted it to be an interactive experience. Not only talk to the industry but hear from industry."

Instead of an exposition floor, there will be virtual booths, "where some of our industry partners will be able to display some of the things they are working on," Hawkins said.

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Going virtual opens the door for a broader audience that may not have been able to travel but it also limits personal interaction outside the main events. It also limits the impact of equipment capability demonstrations and leaves little room for technical error.

"When you're live, you can't stop and pause and say, wait, let me fix that technical glitch," Hawkins said.

With SOCOM injecting $7 billion into the U.S. economy each year and the constant need to upgrade equipment, cancellation simply was not an option.

"You won't have everything but that's why, we hope in the future, that we can actually host it again here in Tampa," Hawkins said.

SOFIC runs through Friday.

Of course, any loss of a large gathering is a hit to local hotels and restaurants. As Visit Tampa Bay awaits official guidance from the CDC for future conventions and events, they're compiling a list of guidelines such as timed entry, contactless entryways, social distancing barriers in exhibit halls, one-way paths, and boxed or plated meals.

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