The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, FL is always a big draw. In 2019, the conference had a record of 16,000 attendees. In the conference, the United States’ Special Operations Command (SOCOM), hosts hundreds of vendors (440 last year) wishing to do business with the military’s special operators. 

However, due to the global coronavirus pandemic, initially, the conference was canceled. That was bad news for the city as the attendees that flock to the conference would be staying in hotels, eating in local restaurants, sampling the nightlife, and shopping in the area.

SOCOM, based out of nearby MacDill Air Force Base, might also miss out on the latest and greatest gear. Members of academia would, likewise, be negatively affected as the conference is also a forum for them to discuss the issues that America’s Special operators are facing on a daily basis

But SOCOM, like the rest of the world, adapted to the crisis at hand and found a way to hold the conference anyway. SOCOM’s SOFWERX tech hub, located in nearby Ybor City, was turned into a TV station; about a dozen of its wired spaces are now interactive presentation rooms. For the first time fully virtual, SOFIC 2020 will have about 4,000 online attendees. They will be able to listen in to live presentations and ask questions, by typing them in.

“It’s a different type of event,” said Christine Klein, Senior Vice President, Meetings, Divisions & Partnerships, for the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) who produce the conference. 

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman, told the local television news that holding the virtual conference was very important to the command. 

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“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.”

There won’t be an enormous exhibition floor for military members and company executives to walk through, and do a hands-on inspection of the latest weapons, vehicles, computer systems, and other associated gadgetry. Nonetheless, industry partners can still show their latest works on a virtual system broadcast out of Ybor.

Of course there are advantages and disadvantages associated with going virtual. On the one hand, attendees may still interact with industry partners. On the other hand, the personal interaction with the vendors will be inherently limited, and this conference is always about creating a two-way exchange of ideas to support SOCOM’s warriors. Another downside to the virtual conference is that it limits the impact of much of the equipment’s capability demonstrations.

If there is a silver lining to the current situation, it is that the new virtual conference format may, in the future, allow more companies to showcase their wares as it would cut out travel and accommodation expenses.

Of course, every year, one of the highlights of the conference is the capabilities demonstration scenario. According to it, the Mayor of Tampa Bay is kidnapped by terrorists and special operators from all of the services descend on the Riverwalk in Tampa. Attendees line up outside of the Tampa Convention Center and watch the operators do their thing. 

SOFIC 2020 runs from May 11-15.