IT? What's IT? Non-Tech Companies Set Up Shop

Tucked away in a corner of the Comdex show floor here, near displays for network software and storage applications, a mattress company spread out a half-dozen beds to entice weary travelers into a test-snooze.

"We're a software distributor," quipped Joe Libin, a mattress salesman for Electropedic-Thermopedic Inc.

Computers, cell phones, cameras, cars... the digital revolution has blurred the lines between the high-tech and the regular-tech, changing Comdex over the years into something more like a consumer trade show. The show's original audience was computer dealers and distributors, who still continue to come to the event. For some companies, Comdex is simply a gathering of 200,000 people with the right mixture of money, youth and tastes.

Libin said he expects to sell about US$80,000 of mattresses during the week-long trade show, and it would have been more if the company had managed to get a spot in the more-frequently traveled South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center as it did last year. The revenue more than justifies Electropedic-Thermopedic's $11,000 cost for the display space, according to Libin.

Other non-information technology companies featured more prominently at the show, although most focused on applying IT to their companies' needs. DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz USA unit secured hall space to display mobile computing systems in their luxury cars. "The car is the next big platform for the Internet," said Ken Enders, marketing vice president for Mercedes-Benz USA, in his keynote address here Wednesday.

International banking group Citigroup Inc. set up nearby as well. Better known for finance than floppy disks, Citigroup nonetheless had significant IT announcements to make at Comdex. Database and applications vendor Oracle Corp. and Citigroup announced a strategic electronic business agreement Tuesday, and Citigroup touted new online banking and investment services at the show.

"We have a technology orientation, and we want to stay on the leading edge, but because we're not a technology company, we stand out," said Steve Clifford, director of Citigroup online trading subsidiary Cititrade. "We get our brand out there, and we get to see a lot of press coverage... and our target market is here -- the affluent technology sector."

Other companies and organizations with Comdex displays had even more tangential connections to computer technology.

The U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express Corp. and the U.S. Patent and Trademark offices each have booths here, for example.

The Comdex organizers donated space to the user advocacy group the Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) for its information booth. Toy seller FAO Schwartz set up shop on the show floor. Space was even made for Hooters -- a restaurant chain known at least as widely for the physical attributes of its scantily clad waitresses as its buffalo wings.

At the other end of the spectrum, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, promoted the technological advancement, skilled workforce and business-friendly atmosphere of his home city to potential investors.

"We're here to get rid of the perception that Dubai is a desert," said Wadi Ahmed, marketing manager for the sheikh's Web site -- "We're going to be the IT hub of the Middle East. We believe (Dubai) will become an e-city." Dubai is engaged in a program of technical training in its elementary and high schools, and an "Internet City" real-estate development is being built on the foundation on the latest IT infrastructure, Ahmed said.

The Dubai display amid modem manufacturers and motherboard makers turned heads. The effect, Ahmed said, is intentional. "Isn't that the key to marketing? To make an impression?"

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