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LAS VEGAS-While the early space bookings indicate Comdex/Fall '95 will be even bigger than this year's version, the comments of disgruntled marketers clearly illustrate Comdex has reached a pivotal point.

In a first for any publication, Advertising Age's Business Marketing visited the assignment order room-where companies select booth space for the following year-in the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Annex. What was found was a finely tuned marketing machine.

The pace and efficiency of the room, however, belied a growing dissatisfaction among show exhibitors.

Ronald K. Wong, marketing programs manager for the Wireless Data Group of Motorola, described the mood in industry terms: "It seems they are trying to be the Microsoft of the trade show industry."

What appeared to upset the exhibitors most was the lack of customer service from the Interface Group, producer of Comdex. "It's been nothing," said James E. Christner, VP-marketing for Techmedia Computer Systems Corp., Garden Grove, Calif.

"My senses tell me there are symptoms of upper management problems," said Dina Deryan, marketing communications manager for Clary Corp., Monrovia, Calif. "Three years ago they were much more attentive to our needs."

Sheldon G. Adelson, founder and chairman-CEO of Needham, Mass.-based Interface, said because Comdex has grown so large, it's difficult to keep everyone happy. "We address all the legitimate complaints we receive. We respond to big and small attendees, no matter who they are."

While it might be better, it will be more expensive. Interface increased the cost of booth space to $42.95 per square foot for next year's show, up 4.9%.

"Everyone knows this is a very expensive show to do," said Steven Taglio, program manager-Apple USA event marketing at Apple Computer. "There is a frustration with hotel costs and costs per square foot. The hotels claim that it is because the Comdex attendees don't gamble."

Mr. Adelson defended the prices charged. "Our cost per 1,000 has gone down somewhere between 65% and 75%, and our costs have increased dramatically," he said.

The selection process is another sore spot among several exhibitors.

"We worked our way up from Bally's to the Hilton and then to the main hall and now we are in the South Annex," said Clary's Ms. Deryan.

She said the company agreed to take space in the annex for the 1994 show at the suggestion of its Interface representative, only to discover the hall was not full.

"We used to get 150 leads a day and yesterday we got 20," she said.

"We were told our chances of getting into the main convention center-the north hall or the south hall-would probably be never," Techmedia's Mr. Christner said. "It's gotten so big now, only the big companies can get in the main hall."

WordPerfect Corp. wanted the same booth location next year, but the spot was taken.

Despite the continued successes of other Comdex dropouts, most noticeably Compaq Computer Corp. and Oracle Corp., most industry leaders feel they must be at the show.

"We get a lot of exposure with the press and customers. It would be noticeable if we were not here," said Motorola's Mr. Wong.

Smaller exhibitors feel trapped. "It is simply the image-you are making a statement to the public and the press by being at Comdex," Ms. Deryan said. "The smaller companies are not willing to pull out of Comdex if the big ones do not."

"Comdex has been a rude shock for us after 25 years at [the Consumer Electronics Show]. It certainly has not been a bargain," Rob Robinson, director of marketing for Home Theater Products, Anaheim, Calif., said during a roundtable session hosted by Dealerscope Merchandising.

Mr. Robinson said the electronics show has a better quality of attendees and is much more targeted in its approach. He said Interface needs to decide what kind of show Comdex should be.

Despite the complaints, Mr. Adelson was confident Comdex would continue to be the premier marketing event in the technology field.

"Comdex at a crossroads? It's more like a springboard. It is just going to get bigger and better," Mr. Adelson said.

Contributing to this story: Jan Jaben and James G. Kimball in Las Vegas and Lorien Golaski in Chicago. A more complete analysis appears in the December Business Marketing.

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