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The Unavoidable Focus: Economic Downturn

April 18, 2001

By Hoag Levins

( -- For the hundreds of top managers arriving for the American Association of Advertising Agencies conference, Naples, Fla.,

Photo: Ritz-Carlton..
The Ritz-Carlton, Naples.
offers soothing respite from the economic woes that have so plagued the spirit and bottom line in recent months.

More than 300 executives are expected at the four-day conference at the Ritz-Carlton -- the 83rd such annual conclave of the AAAA, the national trade association of the U.S. advertising industry.

And if Naples is the crown city of Florida's Platinum Coast, the Ritz-Carlton is its prize jewel. The major landmark of the area, it sprawls across 26 lushly landscaped acres of sun-drenched Gulf coast beach.

World's best hotel pool
Travel & Leisure magazine has dubbed the place the "Best Hotel in the Continental U.S." A Gourmet magazine readers' poll recently selected the Ritz's lagoonlike pool as the world's best hotel pool. Wine Spectator and Golden Spoon have bestowed similar accolades on the facility's wine cellar and kitchen fare.

The interior of the main high-rise complex is a virtual museum of antiques and artwork that helps to create an overall atmosphere of pampered repose and learned contemplation. AAAA attendees will, no doubt, be in the mood for both as they seek to divine the lessons of the ad industry's latest rounds of layoffs, cutbacks, consolidations and collapsing profits.

All is not bleak
Yet all is not bleak. Within the last 24 hours, AOL Time Warner -- the bellwether media colossus -- reported

Photo: Ritz-Carlton..
The 'World's Best Hotel Pool'?.
surging earnings. More interesting, its biggest increases occurred in AOL, the online operation that is itself a bellwether of the troubled and often-baffling Internet economy.

Organized round the theme "The Agency in an Era of Change," the conference is designed to analyze current economic problems as well as explore future trends and methods for improving operations. Some measure of the organization's steely determination to identify new solutions can be found in the scheduled "inspirational presentation" by U.S. Navy Cmdr. D. Michael Abrashoff who will discuss his military experience with employee recruitment and retention.

Dot-com advertising?
Thursday's session, "Leading Agencies in the Dot-Com Era," promises to be one of the more lively sessions. Panelists including Advertising Age columnist Randall Rothenberg are expected to flog each other over such contentious issues as whether there is a future for Internet-based advertising.

And, if it is any consolation, the angst inside the Ritz is mirrored to some degree outside. The surrounding vacation city of Naples, famed for its world class golf courses, yacht basins, art galleries and gourmet restaurants, shows similar signs of an economy operating outside expected norms. On the one hand, the local newspaper reports that tourist spending has fallen this year -- which is bad news for local merchants. Meanwhile, the local real estate community is abuzz about last week's $36 million sale of a waterfront estate that marks the highest amount ever paid for a home in a county renowned for its pricey properties.

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