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The Show, It Is A-Changin'

15 Jul, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold

The 21st annual Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) convention opens this week in Las Vegas, and for veteran show-goers the experience will be vastly different from previous conventions.

The lavish studio booths that graced the floor during the convention's heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, already an endangered species since then, will be conspicuously absent at this year's event, scheduled for July 16-18 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.

Video suppliers will instead rent suites for “open house”-style visits or private one-on-one meetings with key retail accounts, some at the Rio and others at neighboring hotels.

A sharply scaled-down show floor -- held in a Rio ballroom, a far cry from the huge Las Vegas Convention Center that hosted the show in its heyday -- will be used chiefly by ancillary product and service providers, such as popcorn vendors and fixtures suppliers.

“Members and attendees have asked for ever-more focus on business first, and this format gives them a much better opportunity for real business meetings with suppliers across the board,” said VSDA president Crossan “Bo” Andersen. “The suites format really portends effective business meetings, and that's what, along with some entertainment, we are sure our attendees want.”

The revamped VSDA convention mirrors the so-called “NARM model,” something critics have been advocating for years, in the face of declining attendance and studio participation.

The National Association of Recording Merchandisers chose the approach out of necessity, not choice: In the 1980s, the record retail industry was socked by consolidation, and the record companies placed less and less importance on the surviving independents -- preferring to limit their outreach to the bigger chains.

A decade later, the home video industry underwent a similar transition, but VSDA officials and convention organizers were reluctant to change the show because of the lucrative booth rents they were getting. They clung to their existing model for as long as they could, until the big studios began dropping out and it was no longer feasible to produce such an extravagant affair.

The last VSDA convention, in January 2001, was a shadow of its former self, observers note -- and in the ensuing 18 months, VSDA officials and show organizers did a lot of soul-searching.

“We talked to attendees and the studios and other exhibitors, and it was clear there was a desire for a change in format,” Andersen said. “And this format seemed to meet the needs of both groups, in a very positive way.”

Hoping to boost attendance, the show was moved to the Rio, where the room rents are a lot cheaper than they would have been at the convention's previous host hotel, the Venetian. The July time frame also means lower room rates at neighboring hotels, which typically drive up prices in January, when the Consumer Electronics Show is in town.

“Rooms are at least $150 less than they would be at the Venetian, and other rooms across town are also less than half what they would be in January,” Andersen said, noting that rooms at the Rio are $89.

At press time last week, 134 companies had signed up to either exhibit on the show floor or take out “open” suites. Several studios will hold private meetings at the Rio. Warner Home Video and MGM Home Entertainment executives will be at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

The number of full registrations, with access to all events, is limited to 1,500. Mary Thompson, show manager for Home Entertainment Events, the joint venture between the VSDA and Advanstar Communications (parent of Video Store Magazine) that operates the convention, said preregistrants are running ahead of the 2001 show.

John Thrasher, VP of video purchasing for Tower Records and Video, plans on attending “to meet with our vendor partners and to explore better ways to do business for the upcoming year. It is always a good opportunity to meet face to face with some people you rarely get a chance to see.”

J.T. Malugen, CEO of Movie Gallery, also will be at the show, “mostly to see old friends, look for new opportunities and see studios and distributors.”

Several parties are on tap, including an opening night pool party Tuesday, July 16. On Wednesday night is a dance party at Club Rio, and on Thursday night is the VSDA awards celebration followed by a special show by magicians Penn and Teller exclusively for full registrants.

All official events are sponsored by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Entertainment.

Other highlights include the presentation of two special awards during the opening ceremonies July 16. Sylvester Stallone, in a visit arranged by Artisan Home Entertainment, will receive the VSDA's “Action Star of the Millennium” award, and George Carlin will receive the VSDA's “Freedom of Expression” award.

Also on tap are a directors panel and nearly 20 seminars exploring such topics as DVD special features, the transition from VHS to DVD and adult issues (with special guest Larry Flynt of Hustler).

Studio executives are optimistic the re-engineered show will work for them.

“The VSDA convention continues to provide us with a forum where we can meet with many of our accounts in person,” said Dan Gurlitz, VP and general manager, home video, for Wellspring Media. “We discuss recent history and disclose our upcoming plans -- and we hear theirs. Together with our accounts, we're able to develop strategies for the future, strategies to continue growing our business together.”

“As the industry has changed over the years, the convention has changed along with it,” said Henry McGee, president of HBO Home Video. “It remains an important place to meet with our customers.”

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