Future unclear for shrinking Comdex

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The hottest story at this year’s fall Comdex? The fate of the beleaguered trade show itself.

Many attendees in Las Vegas late last month speculated openly on whether the 23-year-old trade show would exist in 2003. Questions about the show’s viability sometimes spilled over into more formal settings, too. At the 12th annual Comdex Wireless Dinner, which takes place off the show floor, Andrew Seybold, president of Outlook4Mobility, stood up and said, "I don’t think there’s going to be a Comdex next year." He told the 200 attendees he was moving the dinner event to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) show in New Orleans in March.

At its height in 1997, Comdex/Fall covered 1.382 million sq. ft. of floor space and drew 2,480 exhibitors and nearly 212,000 attendees. But the most recent five-day show in Las Vegas only cracked the 500,000 sq. ft. level for booth space and attracted about 1,100 exhibitors and 124,800 attendees, according to show organizer Key3Media Group Inc.

Key3Media bought Comdex, Networld+Interop, Seybold and other trade shows from Softbank America Inc. in June 2001.

"Once upon a time, Comdex was the place where everyone looked for the next big thing," said Steve Tobak, who has held numerous marketing positions at semiconductor makers such as Cyrix Corp. and National Semiconductor Inc. Tobak is now senior VP-marketing at Rambus Inc., a maker of chip connection technology based in Los Altos, Calif.

Tobak thinks Comdex suffers from two problems: the budget crunch caused by the current economic downturn, as well as something perhaps more fundamental. "The PC has ceased to be interesting. And Comdex is a show for computer resellers," he said.

Tobak did attend last month’s show, but only for a day of meetings. And he doesn’t expect Rambus to be at Comdex next year. Instead, the company will exhibit at big shows with a broad audience, such as CeBIT, and at targeted conferences, such as the Intel Developers Forum. Still, Tobak thinks Comdex could remake itself into a relevant industry show.

Naysayers are wrong

Michael Millikin, senior VP of Key3Media and head of Comdex, believes the naysayers are wrong about Comdex. "Comdex will be here. Key3 may not be here, but Comdex will be," he said.

Key3Media filed 10-Q documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission the week before Comdex, saying it was seeking a "change of control" event. Millikin said Key3Media would not operate under bankruptcy protection but would declare Chapter 11 as part of a purchase arrangement.

There were some buyers at Comdex, and some of them were kicking the tires of Comdex itself. Among rumored prospective buyers for the show were Key3Media management, show founder and Las Vegas hotel impresario Sheldon Adelson, Gartner Inc., Advanstar Communications and Deutsche Messe AG, the large German trade show organizer that operates the CeBIT shows.

But a buyer, if one is found, will purchase a very different trade show from the one that dominated the industry in the 1990s. While Comdex/Fall continues to attract tens of thousands of attendees and more than a thousand exhibitors, much of this year’s booth space went to foreign industry associations and small companies. The huge exhibits that marked the event in earlier years were not much of a presence. Next year’s show will only run for four days, Nov. 17-20.

"I don’t think it’s been effective for the last couple of years," said Harriet Donnelly, president of Technovative Marketing Inc., a Peapack, N.J., company that advises high-tech companies. Donnelly said that big companies still showed up because they needed to but that the show "is still so big for small companies that it’s not effective."

Time for a new format

All the same, Donnelly expects Comdex will be around next year. She hopes that it picks a better format, perhaps something like that offered by CeBIT, which organizes every hall by industry segment rather than developing pavilions within a show.

Other tech marketers still find Comdex effective. Segway L.L.C. had hour-long lines of people waiting to ride one of its "Human Transporters." The company expected that Comdex would draw potential "early adopters" to its exhibit of people-movers.

"We’ve seen a very large number of commercial suppliers from all over the world," said CEO George Muller.

Pablo Salomon, CEO of Interactive Networks Inc., a security software maker, said his first Comdex was extremely cost-effective. "This is where we open our markets and find our partners," he said.

Key3Media’s Millikin said Microsoft Corp., the show’s biggest exhibitor, was on board for next year, as were many foreign associations. He acknowledged that Key3Media’s corporate issues had caused others to wait and see.

Conferences show confidence

Comdex’s show officials certainly act as though they’ll be around next year. The trade show group announced it will hold a series of Innovation Conferences in 2003—one-day seminars focused on topics such as the Semantic Web and Autonomic Computing. The conferences will be co-sponsored by universities and research facilities in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Millikin said the seminars would help Comdex build its brand presence and maintain ties with attendees throughout the year.

"The problem with a trade show is that it’s one event and you’re done until next year," he said. He added that Comdex officials were working on new kinds of integrated marketing offerings for exhibitors. And he cited research showing that Comdex 2001, which was held in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, still generated $4.6 billion in purchasing.

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