Send in the crowds

As confab attendance slumps, Western Show will pay some attendees to come

Pay no attention to that space behind the curtain. That's how the National Cable & Telecommunications Association tried to prevent attendees from noticing just how many vendors and industry executives were missing from the show last week. Chicago's cavernous McCormick Center had erected an elaborate curtain around the perimeter of the exhibit hall, concealing the ample square footage that lay unrented.

Two years ago, the NCTA had filled that same exhibit hall wall-to-wall.

Attendance dropped a dramatic 23% this year, from 31,000 last year to 24,000. The number of exhibitors stayed about the same, but the association said its space rentals fell 10%.

The National Show is far from alone. The California Cable Television Association is so worried about space cancellations that it is offering to cover the expenses of MSOs who send their senior managers.

In April, the National Association of Broadcasters saw attendance at its annual convention dip for the first time since 1986, although exhibition rentals rose. The Radio and Television News Directors Association is lowering registration fees.

The conventions are pinched by a combination of the recession and industry consolidation. Like TV networks, TV trade shows suffer from the disappearance of Internet companies looking to converge.

More important, as the big media companies get bigger, there a fewer key decision makers. Rapid consolidation means that there are only 10 operators of any size, and as they amass larger clusters, there are fewer regional managers making decisions, or going to shows.

Vendors find it easier to visit customers in person than to spend $300,000 to $700,000 renting space plus buying, moving, erecting and staffing a booth.

"Our booth is totally empty," complained an executive of one cable network last week.

"We never cut deals at these shows any more," lamented an executive with Turner Broadcasting System.

"We're evaluating what we'll be doing at the conventions," said C.J. Kettler, senior vice president of affiliate sales for Oxygen Media.

The Western Show is proposing to fight the trend by covering the expenses of cable operators, including transportation, hotel, meeting rooms and meals.

"It's target marketing," said CCTA COO C.J. Hirschfeld. "Why shouldn't we spend our money on the people who are most important to exhibitors?"

Hirschfeld would not say how the association plans to structure payments, but bringing the top 10 executives from the top 10 operators could cost $300,000 or so, about the cost of a booth rental by one major exhibitor. Cancellations this year include Home Box Office, In Demand, Discovery Networks and Starz Encore.

The Western Show generates about $8 million in revenue, a bit less than $5 million profit for the CCTA.

Industry executives approve the pay-to-stay move. "I applaud them for doing something smart about it rather than sitting back and taking the hit," said one NCTA official.

Belt-tightening station groups are not sending big numbers to this week's Promax/BDA conference in Miami, and syndicators, in turn, are scaling back their presence.

Promax/BDA CEO Glynn Brailsford overly isn't concerned. He says that high-tech design firms will be there in droves and attendance is tracking at 4,000, the same level as last year.

"We know this is a difficult year economically," said Barbara Cochran, president of the RTNDA, which will hold its annual convention in September in Nashville, Tenn. She said "early-bird registration," currently at several hundred, is about normal, although at least one network, NBC, is not planning an affiliates meeting there.

RTNDA is offering a significant discount for those who register this month: $335 vs. $435 last year.

Additional reporting by Allison Romano, Dan Trigoboff and Suzanne Ault