Weathering the storm

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By quirky tradition, NATPE President Bruce Johansen makes a bizarre entrance at the convention's annual opening session. Last year, he emerged from a sea of blue ooze as the Blue Man Group performed on stage.

This year, just showing up would be remarkable enough. Johansen's NATPE convention has been slugged by the economy, the consolidation of the television business and the tragedy of Sept. 11, all of which are acting to keep people away. It has also lost some major syndicators; they've taken their business to the Venetian Hotel rather than exhibit at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Preshow registration has fallen 40% from the same point a year ago.

Indeed, whether there will be a NATPE convention for much longer is a question no Las Vegas oddsmaker would be likely to put money on (the association has a committee of industry leaders studying the question). In this edited interview with West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Schlosser, Johansen, who thankfully has a sense of humor, talks about the very long year behind him.

It has been a rather nondescript year, hasn't it?

What a boring year, what a boring year.

Seriously, though…

Clearly, it's been a roller-coaster. We came off the conference last year with record numbers in terms of exhibition, in terms of attendance. It was the most successful conference we had ever held. To go from that high to see all of the things that have gone on throughout the year ... it really hammered our business.

Linking up with other conference organizations, is that still a possibility? And where do things stand with PROMAX?

Absolutely. We continue to have conversations with PROMAX, and, at this point, I think it looks very positive. I think it would make sense for our membership and theirs as well.

That could mean a combination of things. That could mean they continue to have their big meeting in June, or it may mean that we consolidate meetings and we fold them into another time of year when we have a meeting. … We'll have to see, but I think it makes a lot of sense.

What exactly are you looking to achieve with the blue-ribbon panel?

We want to use the panel as a sounding-board for everybody who makes up our membership, and that's why we picked the various people that we did: They represent the various constituencies. We want them to talk to the people in their respective area, get a sense of what people want and need from NATPE in the future, and come back with recommendations to the board as to what we should be in the future. Should we have a conference as we always do in the end of January? Should we have other conferences? Should we have something in the spring, something in the fall?

How important is the Madison Avenue crowd to NATPE—the advertisers and the media buyers?

They are very important. We have aggressively marketed to those people over the last decade, and it's paid off. We had over 1,200 executives from the advertising sector at our conference last year. I don't know how many will be there this year, but most of the agencies and advertisers we have talked to will at least be sending someone. I'm sure that it's not going to be the same number, since we are looking at a decrease in all of our numbers across the board.

This month's conference is going to be cut in half basically, and a number of the top U.S. syndicators are going to have their own conference at their own venues. Can NATPE withstand the setback financially?

Yeah, we'll feel the financial impact. But, thank God, we have reserves, and we built reserves over the years for such an event, so we can weather this storm. For how long, I don't know. ... This conference will not be the end of NATPE because it's not going to bankrupt us.

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