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Convention facility draws praise, quibbles

The lights went on, the escalators went up and down, and the wireless Internet access worked as it was supposed to.

Well, mostly.

The first convention-goers to use the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center were in full force yesterday, as the Macworld Conference & Expo opened its trade show floor and employees of German software developer SAP darted in and out of meeting rooms during the company's sales meeting at the new, $800 million South Boston facility. Attendees at both events gave the huge new center an overall thumbs up, saying they were impressed with the building's size, architecture, and layout and with amenities such as free wireless Internet access and cellphone service that rarely went dead, even when calls were made from deep in the bowels of the center.

But while most conventioneers applauded the building, there were complaints and glitches that even the convention center's staff admitted could amount to the difference between Boston being viewed as among the nation's top convention cities and being seen as an also-ran. Among them: cabbies who overcharged out-of-town visitors for short rides, a lack of parking near the center, and no automated teller machines inside the facility.

''I think the message is that beyond all of the very positive features about Boston that attracts conventions here, there is a total customer experience that needs to be understood and dealt with to be an elite convention city," said James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which owns the center.

Things got off to a slow start for the center's first days of operations. SAP, which is holding a corporate meeting for about 11,000 of its employees at the convention center, started with its first round of employee-only sessions on Sunday night. Macworld began registering its expected 10,000 attendees and held a few sessions on Monday.

But the main event began yesterday, as thousands of diehard Macintosh devotees lined up for the trade show's opening and a keynote panel discussion. As attendees from both events made their way through the gigantic building, many said they were unaware that they were sharing the convention center with another show. That should please convention center officials, who once trumpeted the building as a venue for massive trade shows, but more recently have said that its size makes it suitable for hosting several smaller events at once.

''It's almost cavernous," said Katie Gerber, a Charlestown resident who works at the Berklee College of Music and trolled the Macworld show floor with two friends. ''I wouldn't have known there were other people in here. It feels like a warehouse."

While Gerber and her friends spent their time checking out the booths at Macworld, others found comfortable spots in the center's corridors where they sat, popped open their laptops, and unwittingly became among the first to tap into the convention center's free wireless Internet access.

Signs posted throughout the building advertised the service, telling visitors to type in the word ''Boston" when asked for a network password to log on.

James Cass, a systems analyst for Sealed Air, a Simpsonville, S.C., packaging company, surfed the Web while perched on a windowsill in the convention center.

''It makes a world of difference," Cass said of the free wireless access. ''It's like I'm still at work."

But the wireless Internet service, which officials said should work from any point in the building, wasn't working for everybody.

The service never came on at Battery Technology Inc.'s Macworld booth. The Warwick, R.I., company makes accessories for the popular iPod music player, and needed to connect to the Internet to show customers comparisons between their products and competitors, said Dave Sarazen, one of three employees manning the booth.

''I walk into a Starbucks and it automatically tells you that you're on, you're hot," he said, pointing to an icon on his laptop screen that indicated he had no Internet connection. ''I'm not seeing anything here."

Sarazen had another peeve about the center, too: confusion among security personnel about where he could unload his materials outside. Some guards told him he could unload everything near the center's front entrance on Summer Street. After all his boxes were sitting on the curb waiting to be carried in, a different guard told him to put it back in the car and drive around the building to the loading dock, he said.

''Maybe that should have been coordinated better," he said.

A group of five SAP employees said a cab driver charged them $60 to leave from the Radisson Hotel Boston on Stuart Street, stop to pick up colleagues at two other hotels and take them to the convention center.

''That's the most I've been ripped off since I've been to Vegas," said Robert Scobie, one of the SAP employees, who was unsure which cab company he and his colleagues used.

Larry Meister, president of the Independent Taxi Operators Association in Boston said the ride from the Radisson to the convention center should have cost a maximum of $15, given moderate traffic. If a cab driver did gouge passengers, it would violate the city's rules for licensed hackney drivers. Beyond that, it hurts the local cab business in general, he said.

Rooney, who walked around the convention center talking with guests yesterday, said he heard several complaints about cabs as well. Still, he said those represented a small percentage of the roughly 600 cabs that dropped passengers off at the center by noon yesterday.

''Statistically, you're going to get some bad experiences and you need to manage them," he said. ''We just need to come together and understand what it means to be a visitor friendly and convention friendly city and keep working at it."

Rooney said there were several other problems the convention center needed to iron out as well, including no automated teller machines inside the building, and little available parking near the center. On the former, he said a request for proposals will be going out to local banks within weeks, with the hope of getting between two and four cash machines in the center in about a month or two.

The convention authority offers valet parking for $15 at the center, but it has only 200 spaces available for the service.

A block away, it leases a 1,700-space lot from the Massachusetts Port Authority, where yesterday it was charging $10 to park for the day, and offering free shuttle service on buses chartered from the Peter Pan bus company.

''My prediction is that sometime in the next three to five years, we're probably going to have to invest in an on-site parking facility," Rooney said.

Keith Reed can be reached at

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