Forum: Eastern Show Adapts to Cables New Landscape

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How do leaders master the flow of change and createmomentum when the challenges seem overwhelming?

Change is scary, and it's very risky. But it alsospurs creativity, innovation, flexibility, and out-of-the-box thinking. It challenges thestatus quo and embraces new people, new thoughts and new ideas. It breaks with the pastand attacks the future.

That's precisely what the leadership of the SouthernCable Telecommunications Association -- the 20 very dedicated individuals who serve asdirectors representing the 12 states in our region -- engaged in when they created Leadership2000.

It has been nearly two years since the SCTA made the verybold decision to abandon tradition and transform itself to meet the changing needs of itscore membership -- cable-system operators in its 12-state region. SCTA leadershiprecognized that as the industry consolidated and regionalized, regional associations couldeither adapt and become more responsive, or become like Woolworth's 5-and-10-centstores: a very fond memory, but no longer relevant.

Just how does an organization become relevant? We began bylistening.

In fact, you might say we went on a "listeningtour," but unlike the more famous one, we really did listen. Through a lengthystrategic-planning process consisting of focus groups and interviews with key stakeholdersin the organization, we learned a lot about how the changes in our industry are impactingour membership, both system operators and exhibitors, alike, and how that impact affectsour organization and structure.

We already knew that as our industry consolidates ouruniverse of cable systems will shrink. The days of regional shows attracting 5,000, 8,000or 10,000 attendees -- as they did 15 years ago -- are over.

Unlike state conventions, which address state public policyand legislative issues, or national shows such as the National Cable TelevisionAssociation, Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers or the Western Show, regionalshows like the Eastern Show, Atlantic Show and Great Lakes Expo are left with no cleardefinition because the "once upon a time" purpose of conducting commerce in theexhibit hall has vanished.

In most cases, buying decisions are in the hands of aselect few at an MSO's corporate office. So, if commerce is not the reason forattending a regional show, then what is?

Our research told us that system managers are seekinginformation that will help them deal with the day-to-day pressures of an industry intransition. It also told us that they want to get that information quickly, because theycannot afford large blocks of time away from the system. And, finally, it reaffirmed thevalue of camaraderie -- the shared experiences of colleagues in similar situations.

Of course, we also listened to our exhibitors. They told usloudly and clearly that they no longer want to spend big bucks to bring mammoth exhibitsto regional shows, nor do they want to pay for all of the related expenses those mammothexhibits entail. Many advocate the consolidation of regional shows into"superregional" shows. Most acknowledge, however, that given the state of theindustry today, even with consolidation the likelihood of duplicating the success of theWestern Show on the East Coast is pretty far-fetched.

SCTA embraces the concept of consolidation. In fact, weconsolidated nearly 50 years ago -- long before it was the "popular" thing to do-- when our founder, Polly Dunn, brought together 12 states to form the first and stilllargest regional organization in the cable industry. SCTA has a proud history and onethat's steeped in tradition. But we've never let tradition stand in the way ofinnovation and reform. We have sought to facilitate a merger with the Atlantic Showstates, approaching them again as recently as three years ago to open merger discussions.

The four states that comprise the Atlantic Show groupdepend upon significant show revenues to support their state associations. On the otherhand, SCTA's mission is to provide a forum for our membership in our region. SCTAremains open to this discussion, but the issue of divergent goals has to be addressed.

It should be recognized, however, that since the passage ofthe 1996 Telecommunications Act with its resultant mergers and acquisitions, the questionreally is not "Should the shows merge?" but, rather, "Are the showsrelevant to the new landscape at all?" If not, how do they become relevant?

It was in answering this question that the concept of Leadership2000 was born. Leadership at every level of the industry was identified as key tosuccess in a highly competitive, evolving marketplace, but where could our members go tohone their leadership skills?

To fill this void and respond to our system managers whowanted concrete information in a concise format, the SCTA streamlined, replacing the usual"talking-heads panels" found at other regional shows with highly regardedexperts in five key strategic leadership areas: leadership development, ethics,communications, competition and transition.

Calling upon the brightest minds in our industry to reactto these experts, real-life cable scenarios turn the theory of their expertise into thereality of day-to-day workplace challenges. Lively debate and audience interaction -- nottypical of other regional shows -- make these sessions unique and highly valuable. Thefive core sessions are encased by an opening keynote address by an industry leader and aclosing panel made up of CEOs from major cable companies.

The new focus of the Eastern Show/Leadership 2000remains on the professional-development component for our core membership -- cable-systemoperators in our 12 states.

Of course, part of that new focus addresses the needs ofour exhibitors whose support over the years is most gratefully acknowledged. But the newindustry paradigm of consolidation, regionalization, and the centralization of buyingdecisions has a direct impact on that participation.

Following our most recent show in Orlando in the fall of1998, we changed our exhibit venue from the mammoth Orange County Convention Center or acomparable facility, opting instead to reserve space in the more intimate exhibit hall atthe Atlanta Merchandise Mart. This very deliberate downsizing on SCTA's part was doneto decrease the burdens and demands on our exhibitors, and we're pleased that thisstrategy was positively received. The exhibit hall was an early sellout.

It's really quite clear that recent comparisons ofexhibits in this show and our 1998 show are invalid for just these reasons. As the proverbsays, you can't compare apples to oranges. We were oranges, now we'reapples, and efforts to turn us back into oranges just won't work no matter how hardyou try!

What will the future hold for regional shows? Only timewill tell, but the marketplace is dictating that they change. In fact, the NCTA recentlyconvened a task force to review regional shows, and we look forward to the results of thatreview. Nonetheless, SCTA is proud to have already taken a leadership role inaddressing the concerns of the industry with regard to the regional shows. We'rechallenging the status quo, breaking with the past, and attacking the future with a newfocus and a dynamic program.

We will judge our results on the value received by ourmembership and the leadership skills they obtain.

Nancy Horne is executive director of the Southern CableTelecommunications Association.

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