Barbara York is a study in irony. For someone who organizes the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual convention and copes daily with the self-promotional zeal of executives trying to get booked to panels, York isn't much of a self-promoter herself. She seldom does interviews, rarely ends up behind a podium and tends to let others share credit for the unwavering success of a convention that has more than doubled in size since she joined NCTA in 1982.
She speaks in whispery, soothing tones that sound almost motherly. But the industry knows the truth. Barbara York is a force to be reckoned with. "Oh, she's powerful," said one industry source who requested anonymity (perhaps wisely). "She gets people on the phone, and when they try to push her, she softly says things like, `I don't think that would be such a good idea.' The message gets across."
York blushes when you suggest that she wields much influence, but she doesn't deny that the cable industry's strong personalities sometimes require tough love. "There are rules and we have to make sure that people understand them," she said. "The art of it is being consistent."
York is also refreshingly honest. In fact, she doesn't even try to sugarcoat or suggest that managing all of the egos involved with the annual convention is a breeze. "Oh, no," she said, laughing. "They knew I'd be lying if I said that. It's difficult, but it's fun."
Or at least, it had been fun up until now. Since York joined the NCTA in 1982, the industry and the U.S. economy have seen unprecedented growth and prosperity that ran right over the early-90's recession and the 1992 Cable Act as if they were nothing but annoying speed-bumps. It wasn't until the technology bubble burst in March 2000 that the industry became remotely concerned. But since Sept. 11 and the subsequent onset of the official recession, the cable industry—now trying to roll out new services such as broadband data and interactive TV—faces a consumer population less willing to shell out a lot of money for "extras." At the same time, operators are consolidating, laying off workers and cutting back on travel expenses — all against the backdrop of a brutal advertising slump.
None of this bodes well for conventions. After all, attendance for last year's Western Show declined by 48 percent. "The Western Show really had a double-double," York said. "Not only did it have the impact of consolidation and the economy, but it also had the impact of 9/11 and travel and taking three hours to be at the airport to get on a plane. People were thinking, `Life's too short to go spend six hours at the airport.' So I think that's what hit the show more than anything."
Just the same, York knows the NCTA's 2002 convention will face similar challenges, especially as it comes off a 23 percent attendance decline at the 2001 show. The goal, she said, is to at least match last year's 24,042-person draw. "I'm hopeful, but I'm realistic. There are some fundamental changes going on, and we have to acknowledge those changes. Otherwise, we are living in a dream world."
York has already moved to address industry consolidation and financial issues by introducing executive suites on the show floor for exhibitors who can't afford glitzy booths (exhibit space was down 10 percent at the 2001 show). "We're hoping that by consolidating on the floor, we're providing a return on time, so you don't have to run around like a chicken with your head chopped off from your hotel and the convention floor," she said. "You have everything all collocated. So the time you spend with us in New Orleans will be more valuable and fruitful."
Still, York hasn't noticed any real gloom-and-doom among industry leaders, at least not yet. "The reality we have to work with on the plus side is that the industry is still a growth industry," she said. "It's not an industry in a downturn. We are introducing new product. It goes hand-in-hand from the days when people took their milk and cheese and eggs and sold it at farmer's markets. When you have new product, you have to take it to market."
York's food analogy may be a subconscious nod to her past. After growing up in Calcutta, India, and attending high school in Hong Kong, she came to America and graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1972. She planted roots in the United States and became director of media relations for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. While there, she met a young executive named Tom Wheeler, who would later leave the GMA to become president of NCTA (he's now president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association).
Wheeler noticed how adeptly York handled the GMA's small annual conference, and encouraged her to join the NCTA to help with its own growing convention business. "I had a lot of learning to do very fast," she said. "The difference between a conference and a convention is night and day. [At GMA], we did not have the floor, we did not have labor unions, we did not have contractors, and we did not have to do bus schedules and hotel rooms for 10,000 people and catering six or seven meals for thousands and thousands of people."
York has proven over the last 20 years that she can more than handle it. And she has no plans to quit any time soon. "I love the industry, and I have really good friends in the industry," she said. "I think once you're a cable person, it just stays with you. Once it gets in your blood, it just stays."