User indifference hurts chances of Comdex revival

A lack of interest among top IT vendors may have killed Comdex 2004, but the real challenge confronting the organizers is to ensure that a lack of interest among IT professionals doesn't kill the show altogether.

MediaLive International shocked the IT community on Wednesday when it canceled this November's Comdex show. MediaLive said the show could have been profitable, but a lack of interest from major IT vendors such as IBM and Dell meant that it wouldn't be a worthwhile draw for corporate IT users.

Instead, the company said it would skip this year's show to "reshape the event with the cooperation of information technology industry leaders" and get it ready for November 2005. MediaLive has established a Comdex Advisory Board that includes representatives from major IT companies to help determine how the show can best meet the industry's future needs.

That's a good idea, said several IT executives who maintained that the show has lost its focus.

Eric Goldfarb, CIO at financial services company PRG-Schultz International, said a one-year hiatus is "prudent ... rather than killing the show completely from lack of support.

"To me, what they're trying to do is tune the agenda and try to get it so there's more incentives for vendors to show up. Interestingly enough, all vendors do go to it, they just don't want to pay for the booths" -- so they hold meetings with customers off-site in hotels in Las Vegas, he said.

"So the need is there ... to be able to see and evaluate suppliers in one fell swoop and ... get a good industry dose of where improvement has occurred."

Philip Brody, chief technology officer for the Clark County School District in Nevada, said the show's absence this year won't be a loss for him or his IT staff. "In the past, it had always been too big," he said. Last year, several staff members attended but were disappointed, he said.

"Last year seemed to pretty much be a flop," Brody said.

"You heard from the vendors when it was really big that they had a lot of people show up but not people who could spend the money. Then it was so big that the people who had the budgets didn't want to be pushed and shoved for 10 hours a day on the floor."

"I was surprised but not disappointed when the event was canceled," said Ron Calderone, CIO at Liberty Corner, Reliant Pharmaceuticals.

"I have not attended the event in years. ... My preference would be the more targeted shows." He said he wasn't planning to attend this year's Comdex, either.

Damien Bean, vice president of corporate systems at Hilton Hotels, said he was "disappointed" when he last attended Comdex two years ago. "As products mature ... the large conference format has diminishing returns," he said.

Industry-specific shows are more useful "because they are more application-oriented," said Randy James, CIO at Americo Life. Jones added that although he has attended Comdex several times in recent years, he didn't plan to go in November.

Scot Klimke, CIO at Sunnyvale, Network Appliance, said that general consumer electronics shows such as Comdex "met their objectives and probably should be permanently retired. These shows were very instrumental in creating a tech-savvy market and driving demand," he said.

"Over the years, as electronics technology and gadgetry have become more and more commoditized, the trade shows are less and less influential."

"I think Comdex is the first of a long list of potential trade-show dropouts," said Klimke, who prefers more targeted events to get information.

"I wonder whether CeBIT (America), now in its second year, Gartner's IT Expo and even the venerable Consumer Electronics Show can survive in the era of a maturing market, tight expense budgets and all the alternatives available to buyers."

Others said they see value in Comdex and are dismayed by its cancellation.

Tsvi Gal, CIO at Warner Music Group, said he believes there's a need for shows like Comdex. "I do see value ... if the vendors take it seriously as 'the big event,'" he said. "It used to be the forum for announcements of new directions and new technologies. The vendors don't do it anymore, so it lost significant value there."

Henry Volkman, CIO and IT director at Lake Forest, restaurant chain Del Taco, said he has "always found the show useful, even though most of us aren't able to implement the latest innovations where we work until they are almost old hat."

General IT shows like Comdex are as valuable as more targeted shows, he said, "since the field gets more dynamic every year and continues to grow beyond anyone's ability to put it in one tent or a single event."

Dell spokesman Jess Blackburn said his company hasn't had a major booth on the Comdex floor because "we just reached a determination several years ago that the trade-show format for us was not particularly effective."

Instead, Dell last year had several self-serve kiosks where attendees could order Dell computers. The company prefers to have more personalized meetings with customers in hotel suites outside the exhibit hall, Blackburn said.

Leigh Day, a spokeswoman for Linux vendor Red Hat, said her company hasn't been on the Comdex exhibit floor in recent years because it's "extremely conservative with its marketing dollars" and aims its exhibits for more focused events, including IDG World Expo's LinuxWorld conferences. Red Hat also puts together smaller regional meetings with customers and attends events put on by strategic partners including BEA Systems and Oracle.

Red Hat won't rule out returning to future Comdexes, though, especially if the Comdex Advisory Board helps make the event stronger, she said. "We will always consider it," Day said.

"This is a fast-moving industry, and nothing stays the same for long."

Last year's Comdex was slimmed down and touted by MediaLive as a focused, business-to-business IT event instead of a glitzy consumer-oriented show. About 40,000 people attended in 2003, down from around 200,000 in its heyday in the 1990s.

Eric Faurot, general manager of Comdex, said a key to again making Comdex a must-see event is to get the major IT vendors back on the show floor so products can be compared more fully.

"We're talking with everybody, and that's exactly what the (Comdex Advisory) Board is going to address," he said. "The reality is it takes time to get trust back."

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