National Show's a Small Wonder

5/12/2002 8:00 PM Eastern

Attendance at last week's National Show was down 30 percent, but the 17,000 folks who made the trek to New Orleans sure got their money's worth.

During this prolonged economic drought, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association managed to put on a great show that attracted senior decision makers from all parts of the business — including MSOs, tech vendors, programmers, regulators and the Wall Street community.

That's because spending quality face time en masse is something that only a venue like the National Show — with its scale — can provide. Sure, the NCTA convention, like other major shows in other industries, has evolved into a very different animal over the years.

Almost every industry — whether it's cable, health care, banking or whatever — has been through a wave of consolidation, leaving fewer entities that are larger and far more complex.

As a result, the trade show as we once knew it— an arena with a gargantuan exhibit hall where buyers and sellers wrangle — is dead.

But the new breed of trade shows, if they're run as deftly as the National Show, can accomplish many positive things, by showcasing an industry's newest and best as it puts its best foot forward for Wall Street and regulators.

NCTA planners made some important changes that other associations should adopt. For starters, it gave National Show exhibitors the option to rent less expensive, prefabricated booths, if they wanted them. And a dozen or so programmers did.

The sessions were also held in meeting rooms, so traffic flowed right into the convention hall, literally forcing attendees to spend time on the exhibit floor. A very smart move.

Truly, the vine was alive and roaring in New Orleans. After attendees got over the initial shock of a much smaller exhibit floor — and the pre-fab booths isolated in a corner — they got into the spirit of the event.

Nothing can match the power of a trade show if it's properly planned. Attendees bank on unexpected encounters with old colleagues and on meeting new folks to widen their networks.

Even those exhibitors who took the pre-fab option — isolated in Siberia as they were — seemed, for the most part, to be happy campers. One exhibitor said she was able to hold six meetings in her "executive suite" on the morning of the last day — as many exhibitors were already packing up their booths.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I suggest that next year, the NCTA should mix those little pre-fab booths with the larger booths, rather than isolating them all in one corner.

But that's a small nit. The NCTA's Barbara York deserves a standing ovation for all the thought and work that went into staging this show. She introduced changes that made a big difference.

Rather than hold the Vanguard Awards on the last day of the convention — when many attendees are bolting to catch flights — she held the ceremony during cocktail hour. The event attracted a nice crowd. Even Vulcan Ventures Inc. honcho William Savoy made the scene.

Then there was the tricky task of keeping folks around for the last luncheon session on Wednesday. So that's when the NCTA brought out the big MSO guns, who answered some very tough questions from Merrill Lynch Inc. analyst Jessica Reif Cohen.

That event also drew a mob. And if you were there, you learned that Cox Communications has just a 0.07 percent churn rate —yes, you read that right — among customers who take the triple bundle of video, data and telephony.

From soup to nuts, this show was a smashing success.

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