Road to NATPE: Virtues Found on Floor, in Suites

Jan 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Though the debate that raged in recent years over doing convention business in a hotel suite as opposed to on the convention floor has been dramatic, it’s nothing new to the National Association of Television Program Executives.

In fact, like many things in television, it’s part of a cycle the organization has gone through practically since its inception. The issue goes back three decades, after the first few NATPE conventions in New York, which were held in hotel suites.

NATPE President and CEO Rick Feldman said the “suite or floor” question is no longer the problem it was for the convention during the past few years.

“It’s very apparent over the past couple of years that not everyone wants to exhibit their product the same way,” he said. “Some people are going to choose to exhibit on a floor environment, but 15 [percent] to 20 percent want to exhibit in an appointment model.”

Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment said Tribune is in that 15 percent to 20 percent. The company has been in suites for years, a situation he described as “beneficial” to Tribune.

“People, when they come into the suites, they tend to be less distracted,” he said. “And it’s a more comfortable environment. It’s quieter, and they tend to stay longer. Sometimes it’s viewed as a respite from the floor. But for every one of those attributes, the guys on the floor can give you five benefits of being on the floor.”

Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, said his company is sticking with the suites, but the option of returning to the floors was presented to the Twentieth sales staff.

“We said, ‘The floor is going to be more expensive, but if you guys want to go down we’ll go’-the vote was unanimous to be in the suites,” Mr. Cook said. “The guys like the fact that people come to see us. They don’t need a lot of traffic to draw people [because] we have so much product. Our preference was to be in rooms and suites where we could really have meetings without noise from the outside.”

Mr. Cook also said the cost difference between being in a suite and being on the floor was substantial.

“You’re building a condominium,” he said. “You have to pay for air conditioning and electrical. It’s not long before you’re into this thing for a million bucks.”

As much as many players in syndication have bemoaned the rapid pace of consolidation in the business, one recently merged company, Viacom, is on the floor in a booth that acts as an umbrella for all its various interests.

John Nogawksi, president of Viacom’s Paramount Domestic Television, said that this year his company, plus Paramount International Television, King World Productions and CBS International Television, would all be under the Viacom banner on the floor. While King World and CBS International were on the floor in 2004 at the Venetian, both Paramount companies were in suites.

“We have companies that actually compete against each other under one roof,” he said of the Viacom booth this year. “With us, we’re kind of that big mall that has two anchor stores on each side. It used to be they would put King World on one side of the floor and us on the other. To me, it’s very exciting.”

Size alone wasn’t the only reason the Viacom companies ended up on the floor.

“It would still cost us less to be in the suites, but you’re talking about an amount that is fungible. You can put it on the spreadsheet, but there is no way to put a price tag on that. There is something about walking in that big booth, but now times that by three, that creates some sort of inertia to get business done.”

Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, said that for the four years he has been with the company and the 19 years he’s attended the convention, he’s been on the floor.

“To me, that’s NATPE,” he said. “It’s easier for the clients. They come for 24, 36, 48 hours to see a lot of people. When we did that one year in New Orleans not on the floor, [the suite] had couches that were nice and soft, but it was not convenient.”

Jim Kraus, Carsey-Werner’s president of domestic television, said the convention helped encourage people to come back down and do business among the crowds.

“NATPE has done a very good job keeping us engaged,” he said. “We went off the floor and into the hotel suites for one year. In terms of seeing everybody and getting walk-in traffic, we’re much better on the floor. It provides us with a better environment and provides us an opportunity to see all our customers.”

Mr. Feldman said the cost of being on the floor-one of the main reasons the big players began pulling up stakes and moving into the suites a few years back-had nothing to do with NATPE itself. If anyone thinks NATPE was requiring large companies to spend millions on elaborate convention booths, Mr. Feldman said, they are mistaken.

“That money doesn’t go to NATPE,” he said. “We’ve done our part to keep costs down. We still offer the best prices in town. We’re not in the profit-making business. We are trying to get everybody from not going crazy over an ‘edifice complex.'”

John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television and a NATPE board co-chairman, said the heady days of the late 1990s, when celebrity chefs regaled conventioneers in lavishly designed booths, are long-gone.

“The industry has undergone a self-examination on fiscal responsibility,” he said. “The changes that have taken place at every company are reflected in a new NATPE, not a NATPE about going back to the way things were. We would rather invest those resources to promote the shows on the air. It’s great to have Wolfgang Puck to cook for you, but you can have a nice booth without going crazy. You have to show people you are working hard for them. We have to apply our resources in places that will show value.”

Mr. Nogawski said that new economical thinking can be seen in the Viacom booth, which is an exercise in restraint, considering four companies will share the space.

“We’re not putting together those monstrosities like we did,” he said. “The booth we are going to be in now isn’t even as big as the booth we used to have just for ourselves.”

At the same time, there still will be amenities for attendees to enjoy.

“We’re still going to feed the convention,” he said. “If you come by, you’ll be getting more than hot dogs.”

One of the few holdouts in terms of believing in the old NATPE pizzazz is King World Productions CEO Roger King, whose convention parties are legendary for their A-list musical acts. Keeping its details a closely guarded secret every year, King World has in the past surprised its invitation-only guests with grand dinners featuring performances by Glenn Frey, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John.

“It is the old Mike Todd way of doing business,” Mr. King said, referring to the brash 1950s Broadway and Hollywood impresario. “We like to try and keep ‘show business’ in show business.”