Comdex's past may be obstacle to survival

The corporate IT community appears not to have gotten the message that Comdex/Fall is being recast as a scaled-down event focusing exclusively on IT professionals. And that's bad news for show organizers who are pinning the event's survival on the new direction.

A Computerworld poll of several dozen IT professionals last week indicated that respondents still perceive Comdex as being too big, too glitzy and too out of touch with the needs of corporate IT to warrant their attendance. Many were not aware of the following developments:

- MediaLive International Inc., which was known as Key3Media Group Inc. until emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year, unveiled plans to completely refocus the US event in July.

- Instead of the approximately 200,000 attendees and 2,000 exhibitors hawking anything with a battery that thronged to Comdex in its mid-'90s heyday, about 50,000 qualified or paid attendees and some 500 corporate-IT-focused exhibitors are expected this year.

Eric Faurot, who became general manager of Comdex in April, said he expects that it will take time for the smaller, more tightly focused event to reconnect with some past exhibitors and attendees.

"I can't build a Comdex that has every company involved and has everything I want in it all in the first year," Faurot said. "We know it's Step 1."

Comments from IT professionals polled this week demonstrated how far Faurot has to go lure them back.

"The value of Comdex in the data management world is very limited. It's hard to get things done at a show that big," said Bob Leo, director of data management and administration at transportation services company Landstar System Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla.

Michael McClaskey, CIO at IT consulting vendor Perot Systems Corp. in Plano, Texas, echoed that assessment. "Comdex has become an extremely large and unfocused event, and it seems that increasingly little of significance for the enterprise really gets announced there," McClaskey said. "Our finite conference dollars are better spent in much more focused forums."

Carlos Recalde, executive director of technology at financial services company KPMG LLP in Montvale, N.J., said he hasn't attended Comdex for at least five years. "I think the value of this show was gone a while ago," he said.

Faurot acknowledged that the marketing challenge is a formidable one, and that the effort so far has yielded little to brag about.

No More 'Fluff'

"It's like anything that has a tremendously powerful brand -- what's associated with that brand can be difficult to change in the minds of some," Faurot said. "It's . . . been around for 23 years" and become saturated with consumer electronics and peripheral products. "There wasn't any real, central focus," Faurot said. "So what ended up surfacing to the top was the gadgets."

But no more.

"Obviously, that stuff is not driving the IT industry right now," and it won't be at this year's show, Faurot said. "We've stripped out . . . all the stuff that was fluff."

Among the new features of this year's show, which is being held again at the Las Vegas Convention Center Nov. 16-20, are seven IT tracks being organized to help attendees learn more about specific technologies, including open-source and Linux, on-demand computing and security.

But changing the perceptions of IT professionals isn't the only challenge faced by show organizers.

The list of exhibitors so far has a few big names, including Microsoft Corp., AT&T Wireless Services Inc., and Dell Inc. But most are smaller companies. The vendor vacuum is highlighted by the fact that, although Linux will be a key theme, none of the major Linux vendors, including Red Hat Inc. and SUSE Linux AG, will have booths at the show.

Faurot acknowledged the missing pieces but said many companies, including Linux vendors, never saw themselves fitting into the Comdex of old and still haven't recognized the new focus. Moreover, he said, many companies that didn't sign up for booths are nonetheless participating in forums and meeting with customers off the show floor.

The hope is that such nonexhibiting participants as chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc., IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. will find this year's show to be useful and sign up to exhibit next year, Faurot said. "There's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, but we still need to get them on the (exhibit) floor, and that's our goal moving forward," he said. "We have to prove ourselves.

Comdex is striving to change just as a competitor tries to unseat it as the premier IT show. Across town, Jupitermedia Corp. will hold its first Computer Digital Expo/Enterprise IT Week show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on the same days as Comdex. That show has signed up keynote speakers from IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., among other companies.

"That's just fine. I think competition is good," Faurot said. "I think (Jupitermedia) saw us as a company in bankruptcy, and maybe they thought there was an opportunity."

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