Comdex is wounded, perhaps mortally, but that does not mean the end for big IT trade shows.
MediaLive International last month "postponed" its fall Comdex show with the intent of bringing it back in a form with more appeal to large-scale technology companies that have abandoned it. MediaLive, which declined to comment for this story, has formed an advisory committee that will meet to determine the future of Comdex.
But whether MediaLive succeeds may not matter. The biggest of tech trade shows, Europe’s CeBIT, remains, and other technology shows, such as CES and Supercomm, may not be as broad as Comdex but are nonetheless large and booming, signaling that there’s still plenty of interest in big shows.
"Personally, I’m sad Comdex is gone," said Harriett Donnelly, president of Technovative Marketing, a technology marketing consultant. Donnelly has run marketing at companies that exhibited at Comdex and said the more specific shows, such as the consumer-focused CES and networking-focused N+I, need a broader counterpart. "Technology is still a convergent industry. There’s a real need for more of the computer technology, which is what you see at Comdex. It served a purpose. I think it’ll be missed, and I believe somebody will come along with something better and replace it."
It would not be the first time a horizontal technology trade show collapsed and was replaced. Comdex itself superseded the old National Computer Conference, which imploded in 1989. There may need to be a strong upturn in the tech economy, though, before another horizontal show is launched.
"I don’t think the exhibitor community is as tolerant as it may have been in the era of high growth," said Ruth P. Stevens, head of eMarketing Strategy, a b-to-b marketing consultancy. Stevens thinks big, horizontal shows like Comdex will be an exception to the overall trend towards smaller, more targeted shows, but "it’s still true that one of the values of a show is as a town square for the industry."
Twilight for general IT events?
There are, of course, those who think Comdex’s cancellation signals the end of broad IT events.
"People are just not going out and flying across the country to attend events the way they used to," said Norm Weisinger, VP-marketing at consulting firm BearingPoint. Weisinger said BearingPoint—previously known as KPMG Consulting—participates in vertical industry events in the sectors in which it practices; horizontal solution events, such as those serving ERP and radio frequency identification technology; and special vendor events, particularly with vendors with which BearingPoint has a strategic alliance, such as Oracle Corp., Microsoft Corp. and SAP.
Others contend the technology industry has become too segmented for such a broad show to be successful. "You have Supercomm and N+I, and those cover about everything you need; and then you have CES," said Elena Zelayeta, a marketing communications consultant based in San Mateo, Calif. "Those shows are more targeted and draw people in subcategories."
The mixed feelings about Comdex reflect broadly held ambivalence among marketers. They think events provide by far the greatest return on their investment but nonetheless are decreasing those investments, according to the 2004 Event Trends report released in May by George P. Johnson Co., an event marketing consultancy. Only 31% of marketers said they planned to increase their event budgets in the near future, compared with 33% in 2003 and 39% in 2002.
That’s despite 44% of respondents saying events provided the greatest ROI, trailed by advertising (18%) and direct marketing (15%).
Mike Westcott, VP-marketing at George P. Johnson Co., said the numbers mean events need to be more focused. Events that succeed will build communities of people with shared interest through thought leadership.
"People will come to your events if you will help them anticipate the future of their business and add value," Westcott said.
He said media companies—such as IDG, with its LinuxWorld event—and associations—such as CES International, with its Consumer Electronics Show—are doing a good job of providing thought leadership.
Smaller event success
Other event producers, including Jupitermedia Corp. and Ziff Davis Media, are finding success with smaller, more focused events. They may also find it less costly if small shows should fail.
Trade show producers trying to launch a show today with a credible number of attendees face the high cost of promotion, said Alan Meckler, chairman-CEO of Jupitermedia Corp., which produces events for the IT space. Noting the expense and declining response rates for direct mail, Meckler said Jupitermedia, which uses some direct mail, promotes its own events with e-mail and Webcasts.
But Meckler failed in an effort to launch a broad IT trade show, called Computer Digital Expo (cdXpo), which ran concurrent with Comdex in Las Vegas. Only 5,000 attendees showed up. "This kind of show shouldn’t be in Las Vegas," said Meckler. "It should be in San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Jose." In fact, he said, Jupitermedia may relaunch cdXpo in one of those markets.
"It would be the same show we did in Las Vegas, and if there is no other [competing] show, it would do much better attendancewise and exhibitwise," Meckler said.
The jury may be out on another Comdex, but smaller does not necessarily mean better.