The incredible shrinking trade show?

I've spent an entire day at the largest computer trade show in the U.S. At least that's what it used to be.

Comdex, also known as the Computer Dealers' Exposition, has been an important part of the computer industry's marketing plans and programs for years. Comdex has always been the show where major new products and developments are launched. But for 2001, it's only half there.

Last year, some 220,000 attendees visited the 2,350 vendors spread out across the Las Vegas Convention Center and the adjoining Hilton Conference Center. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic recession it spurred, official predictions by the show's organizer, Key3Media Group Inc., were for a 25 percent drop in attendance. Based on what I saw and what others on the show floor were saying, the reality is closer to a 50 percent decline. Think about that: more than 100,000 fewer people than last year. The Las Vegas economy is reeling. While Comdex has traditionally sold out all available hotel rooms for miles around, this year they're going begging, at sharply reduced rates. In late August, I booked a hotel room for Comdex. The week before the show opened, I logged on to Expedia.com and found I could get the same accommodations at the same hotel for one-third less.

Well, so what? Why should IT managers care about the fortunes of a single trade show? Well, a lot more goes on here than you might think. Comdex is the industry's biggest single shot at exposing itself and its new ideas to its market -- not just to dealers, but also to corporate buyers and IT managers. The less successful this show is, the less input the manufacturers and developers have in charting their future courses of action. In a time of recession, everyone and everything becomes more conservative, and technical innovation is likely to suffer -- not immediately, but over the next year or two. And this will happen at a time when technology's role in improving productivity is more important than ever.

Stacking the Deck

One of the most interesting aspects of Comdex this year, at least to me, is the several clever ways in which the organizers have structured the placement of booths so as to make the show seem busier than it is.

While there's no more space between booths than in past years, there's lots of empty space around the back edges of the hall, and there are plenty of places to sit. The food concessions on the show floor, once separated from surrounding booths by only a small aisle, have plenty of seating and lots of tables, too -- another first! And here and there, among the booths, there are empty spaces populated by chairs. This is the first Comdex in my memory at which I'm having no problem finding a spot to rest, no matter where I am.

An important part of Comdex has always been the international pavilions, where hundreds of small companies can get tiny booths at affordable prices under a joint umbrella. There have been many of these pavilions in the past, but they were generally banished to the back of the hall, to the edges and to other less-desirable and perhaps less-trafficked spaces.

For 2001, there are prominent and larger-than-ever pavilions for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and others, right smack in the middle of prime space. I don't recall ever having seen an Egyptian technology pavilion before, nor one from Belgium, but there they were. I got the distinct impression that the international areas were "promoted" to better and more central space just to fill up that space. Another space-filler was a large booth dedicated to selling space for next year's Comdex.

In fact, though attendance has risen over the past several years, one could conclude that Comdex, like most of the computer trade shows I've attended, is actually getting smaller. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the continuing expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, so that even a same-size show would seem smaller, with more room around the edges.

Given the sharp decline in attendance and what that has to mean for Key3Media, one has to wonder if there may even be another Comdex. Eighteen months ago, I attended Comdex/Spring in Chicago and wrote a story titled, "What if they gave a Comdex and no one came?". One hundred thousand people isn't "no one," but in this context, it might as well be.

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