The Changing World of Trade Shows


The news that the California Cable Television Association is closing the Western Show demonstrates how times have changed for cable conventions. Having attended our conventions since my first National Cable & Telecommunications Association show in 1978, I believe that this decision symbolizes a long-needed reevaluation.

One of my benchmark convention moments was 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 13, 2001. As I toured the NCTA floor in Chicago, I was amazed by how much money was being wasted. So I began taking photographs. Booth after booth was unmanned. Yet the expense meter still was running. Collectively, we all were paying the price for an extravagant commitment to conventions.

I thought about that moment during the Tuesday afternoon general session at the recent CTAM Summit. The topic had been getting "the straight story" about MSO programming decisions, but one of the first questions addressed the future of conventions.

Michael Willner, a member of the panel, said that it was important for the industry to have a "major showpiece" each year, particularly for the benefit of Wall Street and the media.

The idea of a "showpiece" is one that makes marketers salivate. The history of our industry is marked by the monuments (and tombstones) of convention-centric showpiece promotions.

When the industry was small and growing, things were different. There were many relatively independent networks vying for attention on a fairly equal footing. Convention promotions were an excellent way for these networks to increase their visibility and generate leads. Deals were done on the convention floor, and launch announcements were made daily.

But, gradually, things changed. Consolidation increased the clout of network-ownership groups. And the stage became crowded, not just with new players, but by established organizations seeking to cement their position.

Collectively as an industry, we were paying millions of dollars for activities with little benefit to operators, or consumers. Yet everyone seemed determined to duel it out on the convention floor.

The fact was that cable operators — the very people we were targeting — seemed oblivious to these battles. I always wondered what they thought when networks spent huge sums on conventions at a time when they would have preferred funds to be diverted to customer-service representative incentives, community events, investing in better programming, launch support, as well as strategies that increase operator revenues and reduce churn.

Today, there are fewer MSOs and they are sending fewer representatives to conventions. Deals rarely are done at conventions. And many MSOs are conducting their own national meetings that, for networks, are in many ways, more important than industry conferences.

So now that the Western Show is history, will the NCTA be next? I hope not.

I agree with Willner that there is a need for a showpiece for the industry. And NCTA now is the industry's one "showpiece" convention. But from an exhibitor's perspective, it is getting harder to justify the expenses to make this a showpiece. Like good business people, we all need to ask what will be our return on investment.

At the same time, there always will be a need for conventions where systems, MSOs, networks and suppliers can meet. For this reason, The Inspiration Networks remain committed to state and regional conventions, which provide lower-cost, practical ways in which business can be conducted. Organizations like CTAM also provide important forums for industry discussion and information.

But the days of high-budget, high-glitz cable shows are over.

As an industry, it is okay to look for opportunities to unleash our marketing creativity. But, at the end of the day, it is important to remember the classic line from the Benton & Bowles advertising agency: "It's not creative unless it sells."