ATA Uses Convention to Test Members' Will to Fight

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NEW ORLEANS -- With questions over telemarketing's future looming, the American Teleservices Association tested the appetite of its members for a possible court battle as they gathered here last week for the ATA's 19th Annual Convention & Exhibition.


The convention, held Oct. 6-9 at the New Orleans Marriott, was marked by the sense that when ATA members meet again next fall in Phoenix, the industry's outlook may have changed radically. The Federal Trade Commission is expected to issue a ruling on its proposed national no-call registry by the end of the month.


"This is when we really need you," Thomas Rocca, who was named the ATA's new chairman for a one-year term, told membership at his general session talk. "We could have used you many years ago, could have used you last year, but this year is going to be very important."


Outgoing ATA chairman Bill Miklas urged members to be ready to "dig deep" financially to support an anticipated legal challenge to an FTC no-call registry. The ATA also held an invitation-only strategy session closed to the press to gauge how much its corporate members are willing to donate to that effort.


ATA leadership, which has said it is willing to challenge the national no-call registry all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, anticipates that the court fight will cost more than $1 million. Leaders claim that 20 member companies have stated interest in lending financial support to the ATA for the challenge and that 30 more might be persuaded.


However, for its fight to succeed, telemarketers must update their rhetoric, said C. Tyler Prochnow, state legislative counsel for the ATA. The industry's claim that regulation would strangle its business has not been borne out in the market, where telemarketing has thrived and grown over the past decade even as the number of states with DNC lists has risen to 27.


"Somewhere along the line, the argument that DNC lists cost jobs lost credibility," Prochnow said.


ATA officials said that proposed federal regulations generated unprecedented interest in this year's show. The conference had 20 corporate sponsors and drew media outlets as diverse as the Washington Post and New Orleans Times-Picayune as well as local network news.


Members packed the ATA's annual state and federal legislation update sessions, held Oct. 8, and when ATA government affairs committee member Dennis McGarry introduced the session speakers with a group cheer, the roar of the crowd was nearly deafening.


With news of federal regulations expected to break in a few weeks, the mood among telemarketers was laden with anticipation, industry insiders said.


"Nervous would be one word I would use to describe it," Miklas said.


The industry has had difficulty making its constituency aware of the danger posed by upcoming federal rules, such as the national do-not-call list proposed by the FTC and Federal Communications Commission, some showgoers said. But many expressed confidence that the industry had survived regulation in the past and would weather the storm again.


"Too many people in the industry are unaware," said telemarketing veteran Jon Hamilton, president of JHA Telemanagement. "But among the people in the know, many seem to be concerned but surprisingly upbeat."


Regulation isn't the only worry. Most telemarketers have experienced difficulty maintaining revenue in the slumping economy that followed Sept. 11, 2001. However, telemarketers again were confident that the industry had survived economic difficulty before.


"Ten years ago, we sat in a conference in Florida, and the question was whether the Internet would put telemarketing out of business," said Stephanie Spade, president and chief operating officer of SHS Marketing Group, Langhorne, PA. "Of course, the answer is, not at all."


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