You might say that for Chris Brown, COVID-19 was a giant pain in the business.
As executive vice president and managing director of global connections and events for the National Association of Broadcasters, Brown is the point person for its live shows. He oversees the team that runs the annual spring NAB Show and fall NAB Show New York; he also manages NAB’s Amplify digital hub and serves on the association’s executive leadership team.
Brown, 63, will depart his position following the spring show. We spoke with him about his tenure and the challenges of the past few years.
Preparing for the annual spring show is a massive effort. The convention is the largest in the world covering the media and entertainment sector and is annually among the 10 largest shows produced in North America.
It grew rapidly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Attendance hit 50,000 in 1991 and surpassed 100,000 six years later. Prior to the pandemic it was still pulling in more than 90,000 people.
But COVID wiped out the 2020 and 2021 conventions, a huge hit for an association that typically derives about 70 percent of annual operating revenue from the spring show. It had to ask members for an extra assessment to help cover the loss of income.
Revenue from the pre-pandemic 2019 convention was around $53 million, according to a federal tax form filed for the fiscal year ending March 2020. The association collected about $16 million in membership dues for that period.
“The pandemic was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced professionally,” Brown said. “Navigating those two years was tough. Obviously being cut off completely from hosting live events created a number of issues.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that when asked to name his favorite NAB Show, he cited the 2022 convention that marked the event’s return.
“It’s the most feel-good show we have ever hosted,” he says. “The disconnect COVID created between us and the industry, along with the revenue impact, was difficult.”
The 2022 show drew 53,500, and attendance grew to about 65,000 this year. Brown called this a positive sign that live events are slowly recovering. His boss, President/CEO Curtis LeGeyt, said in April that he was “thrilled” with this year’s turnout.
Emphasis on people
Brown, 63, was born into a military family at Fort Belvoir, Va., and spent parts of his early youth in Heidelberg, Germany, and Bangkok, Thailand, before his father was stationed in southeast Virginia, where Chris spent most of his formative years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in general administration from the University of Maryland.
His background was in trade show management rather than broadcasting. “I was hired by Arthur Anderson Consulting, now more commonly known as Accenture, and worked in software development, which was not what I went to school for and wasn’t the career I intended to head off for. After a couple of years of being buried deep in computer coding I realized it wasn’t going to be in my long-term plans.”
He has since accumulated 35 years of experience in leading events for the non-profit sector, serving a variety of industries. Prior to coming to NAB in 1999, he spent three and a half years as vice president of conventions for the Personal Communications Industry Association and before that was with the Food Marketing Institute.
“I’ve always been more of a people person. Staring at a computer screen isn’t much fun for me.”
Exhibitors and attendees may start thinking about the spring convention a few months ahead of time, but at NAB it’s a year-round process.
“The team will meet with the convention center folks and key vendors several times in advance. The work begins a long way out. The bulk is done throughout the year. Then the January time frame is ‘go time.’ The cadence picks up once CES gets here, and once CES is done we are in go mode. The last 45 to 60 days is mostly focused on execution and getting the final operational elements in place.”
Reflecting on his work with the NAB Show, Brown expressed pride in the organization’s willingness to innovate the event.
“We’ve continued to evolve it and move forward with the industry. We have brought new audiences into the show that are relevant and connected to broadcasting. And we continue to deliver an enormous amount of education through our conference programming. The content is very high quality and deep in nature. It’s a vital part of the show.”
The show’s growth beyond a radio/TV core to a broader communications and entertainment mix was by plan, Brown says, to take advantage of the software- and internet-driven sides of media.
“It’s still predominantly radio and TV, but the internet really began to drive the disruption that brought in a brand-new perspective linking broadcast to a variety of entertainment sectors like film.”
He said NAB will continue to focus on growth from adjacent sectors that are relevant to media entertainment. He adds that the association understands the importance of ramping up attendance at live events again.
“We discovered that some things can be done perfectly well in a virtual environment. That includes education and information flow. But some other facets of a live environment just can’t be replicated online,” such as networking and product discovery.
“You just can’t duplicate the dynamic that happens on the exhibit floor. My view right now is that we are in a renewed golden era of live events coming out of COVID. People are excited to get back out,” he said.
“In a way we are benefiting from this renewed value of discovery. But I don’t think this glow will last forever. Perhaps another four of five years.”
“I’m a fan now”
The spring show settled into Las Vegas decades ago. Might it ever move elsewhere? Brown doubts it. He adds that the city has grown on him.
“I’m a fan now. It’s a machine, with these huge properties. They provide an extraordinary experience. It’s a fun and cool town from a leisure and business perspective.”
NAB will continue to look for ways to evolve the live experience for attendees while delivering return on investment for exhibitors and members, he says. “And digital isn’t going away. I think there is a place for digital to compliment the live event side of it.”
Part of that package includes Amplify, a year-round hub for media and entertainment.
“I think it is evolving nicely and will become a great community connector for us to utilize throughout the year. But live shows are certainly not coming to an end. Humans love getting together with colleagues and friends and comparing challenges.”
Brown resides in Fairfax, Va., and has been married 42 years to his high school sweetheart Sherry. The couple has four adult children and three grandchildren.
He said he’d begun contemplating his departure even before President/CEO Gordon Smith stepped down at the end of 2021 but that Smith’s successor Curtis LeGeyt had asked him to stay on for a while longer.
Brown expects to continue working, possibly in a part-time or consulting role. “I’m definitely not shutting down. I want to spend more time with my family, but I’m looking to stay active and involved in the events world.”