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Great Lakes Cable Expo Proves Its Value

Last month, 12 employees of Time Warner's Northeast Ohio division traveled to Chicago to attend Great Lakes Cable Expo 2000, joining their colleagues from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. As the person responsible for sending them-and for paying their way-I must ask myself: "Was it worth it?"

The answer is a resounding "yes." At a time when the value of regional shows is up for debate at the corporate and national levels, those of us who work with front-line and middle managers know the rare opportunity a show like the Great Lakes Cable Expo presents.

In the Expo's opening general session, my employees learned about developments in the cable industry and strategic movements by our competitors from National Cable Television Association president Robert Sachs. But his speech was not just a laundry list of the industry's technological accomplishments.

Sachs also spoke of cable's local investment, our economic impact on communities, and the jobs our industry creates. He ended with a rallying cry to those in attendance to "let policy makers and the public know about the sweeping changes in our industry.every single one of you has an important role to play in ensuring our industry's success. If we work together, as one industry, I have great confidence that we will succeed."

From that energizing beginning, there followed many hours of informative sessions on topics relevant to my employees. These sessions have a different slant from those of the National Show. They're geared more toward the managers of our front-line businesses.

Among the sessions were "Successful Strategies for Marketing High-Speed Cable Modems," "Looking for Good Employees", "An Integrated Solution for Interactive TV", "New Partnerships between Operators and Programmers" and "Broadband Technology: HFC or IP?"

The sessions brought together national-caliber speakers with in-the-trenches panelists who spoke of the very real challenges local systems encounter in implementing corporate directives and marketing new products.

In a "Customers Speak Out" session sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing, Windy City-area cable modem customers talked about what they expect from their Internet access provider. Presented in a "mock focus-group" setting, the session gave operators the opportunity to consider the consumer's perspective when hearing a competitor's pitch about their Internet service.

The closing session on cable modem open access, led by Rick Cimerman, NCTA director of state telecommunications, looked at the issue not just from a legal or an engineering perspective, but also examined the opportunities and problems that various access "solutions" might present for the local operator.

What will it take, on the part of operators and Internet-service providers, to make open access work? Could the addition of ISPs actually help operators market new cable video services or telephony? What kinds of billing issues might arise? What about existing contracts? These are questions that local cable operators must consider now, as the debate over open access unfolds.

Do my employees have other opportunities to become better educated about our industry? Yes. The state associations of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois that sponsor the Great Lakes Cable Expo all offer their members informative seminars throughout the year. We take full advantage of those events.

A regional show, however, also allows personnel to move further outside their everyday environment, to meet with their peers from other states in the region, and to come home with fresh ideas and front-line solutions. Beyond that, the Expo offers my employees the chance to interact with the vendors and programmers whose products they use and market.

In Ohio, as in most other states, "table-top" exhibits are a relic of the distant past, when deals were made and orders placed during exhibit hall hours.

In this regard, the role of regional shows has changed since the early decades of the industry. Programmers and vendors must be aware of these changes if they want to make the most of their presence at a regional show. Division and regional office personnel are in fact, making more purchasing decisions.

If programmers are depending on these shows for direct sales, they will be disappointed. It's important they view the regional show as an opportunity to explain their product, to interact with the front-line customer service manager who's handling thousands of calls a year at the service center, and to give that person the marketing information they need.

Similarly, the hardware vendor exhibiting at a regional show should view this as the chance to talk with the person who actually uses the equipment, knowing that individual has some influence on the people who make a company's purchasing decisions. It's all about education and reinforcing relationships.

Programmers and vendors who sponsor an on-site event or one held in conjunction with the regional show maximize their presence. It's all part of peer-to-peer learning-the event draws people together from various MSOs and the programmer who sponsors it is the catalyst for those discussions.

Many programmers are lobbying for more consolidation of regional shows-with reason. They must be able to justify the expense and the time needed to purchase and staff exhibit-hall booths, and the price of sponsorships, as an affordable cost of doing business. They have a valid point: in a time when the industry is consolidating, the consolidation of regional shows may be a concept whose time has come. If so, that's an opportunity to strengthen what is already the Midwest's premier cable industry event.

The Great Lakes Cable Expo is the largest of the Midwestern shows, with attendance of 1,511 in 2000, up from 1,450 in 1999, and about 35,000 square feet of exhibit-hall space. The show alternates between Chicago and Indiana, offering operators and programmers diversity in entertainment opportunities and affordable accommodations for attendees.

The Expo stands out in the Midwest as the show with the strongest tradition of high-quality educational sessions, leading industry speakers and strong programmer/vendor support.

The benefits of bringing other regional shows under the Great Lakes Cable Expo umbrella include providing opportunities to attract high-level speakers and quality programs, the enthusiasm of exhibitors eager to reach their target audience in an affordable manner and the energy created by interaction with peers from a larger geographical area. We are encouraged by early conversations with other states expressing interest in joining the Expo in the coming years.

Yet, planners of regional shows should not view size as the overriding concern as they consider consolidation. The greatest benefit of an event like the Great Lake Cable Expo is that it provides affordable networking opportunities, economy of time and travel costs, and education scaled to the needs of the local cable operator. We have to remember we're not CTAM or the National Show. We are there to be a regional show serving local operating systems.

Our Great Lakes Cable Expo Steering Committee is already hard at work on the 2001 event in Indianapolis, when our theme will be "Delivering the Networks of Tomorrow.Today." We hope our fellow operators in the Midwest will plan to join us there. We promise to deliver sessions that are meaningful for your employees, a trade show tailored to your interests, and entertaining vendor events. Oh, and don't forget to stop by Ike and Jonesy's after-the gang will be there!

Steve Fry is president of Time Warner's Northeast Ohio division, and vice president of the Great Lakes Cable Television
Association board.