November 20, 2003 3:54 PM PST

Comdex: Little fish in a smaller pond

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LAS VEGAS--While attendance was below even lowered expectations and the show floor a fraction of the size of years past, show organizers called "Year One of the New Comdex" a success and vowed to return for year two.

"It was a proof of concept," Eric Faurot, Comdex's general manager, said.

It may have been that, but the show here this week was undoubtedly a shell of its former self. Microsoft had a large booth, but few other well-known companies were on the show floor.


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The show floor was dominated by international pavilions, grouping wares from countries like Korea and Taiwan, as well as themed areas covering topics like security and Web services. Many of those at the show were makers of computer components such as fans, power supplies and cables--companies that in the past were more apt to show up at Taiwan's Computex show, or, if they did show up at Comdex, were likely to be relegated to a back corner or even to the separate Sands Convention Center.

Some of the best-known names on the show floor were not originally planning to be there, but got offers they couldn't refuse. PalmOne, for example, was offered a free spot in the Wireless and Mobility Innovation Center, one of several areas set up to cover specific topics. Another late entry, Dell landed a discounted spot on the show floor to show off some gear and sell its complete collection of products via an online kiosk. A Dell representative said the booth wasn't free, but would not say how much the company spent.

Attendance numbers are still being tallied, but Comdex representatives say they now expect around 45,000 will have passed through during the week-long event. That's down from earlier predictions of 50,000 and a steep drop from previous years, but still better than many had expected, Faurot said.

"People weren't even sure we were going to have a Comdex," Faurot said, noting that the trade show's organizer, Key3Media, was planning bankruptcy proceedings right before last year's event.

Medialive International, the trade show organizer that emerged from the ashes of Key3Media, attempted to recast Comdex as a show for information technology managers as opposed to the technology megafest of recent years. The company grouped the show around seven themes of technology--including open-source software and on-demand computing--and tried to recruit exhibitors that fitted into those themes.

The hope was that in doing so, the show would regain a reputation as a place to do business. Comdex's reputation as that had waned, prompting many companies in recent years to skip the show floor and set up shop instead at nearby hotels.

That, Faurot said, demonstrates the promise of Comdex.

"The industry believes there needs to be an annual gathering," he said. The problem is that in recent years it was just too expensive to be on the show floor, with companies needing to spend $1 million just to be seen.

That isn't the case any more, Faurot said, noting that even some of the bigger companies--newcomer AT&T Wireless, for example--had only a modest-size booth.

Wait-and-see approach
The show did attract a number of first-time exhibitors--open-source software seller MySQL, for example--that in the past had only exhibited at niche trade shows such as LinuxWorld.

"It's obviously much smaller than it was in the heyday, but the quality (of those buyers who were attending the show) is quite good," said Zack Urlocker, MySQL's vice president of marketing.

Despite being pleased with the traffic, though, Urlocker said it is too soon for the company to commit to next year. "If Comdex can build from here, we'd definitely be interested."

AT&T Wireless said the relative paucity of big-name rivals worked to its advantage. The company had little competition on Tuesday when it unveiled its new high-speed Edge data network.

"You don't want to announce something significant when there are going to be a lot of other smaller announcements that reporters are going to have to wade through," company spokesman Ritch Blasi said. In past years, there might have been three or four press events going on at the same time, Blasi said. This year, AT&T had its time slot all to itself.

That, combined with a more business-IT focus, made it worthwhile to take part, Blasi added. He also noted that Comdex still had some name recognition in the industry.

The lack of major companies actually helped some of the smaller vendors at the show, such as Net Integration Technologies, a Canadian seller of Linux-based servers. Although past shows were packed with visitors, smaller companies often found themselves unable to compete for their attention.

"You'd watch 1,000 people walk by, and you'd be able to pull two or three," said Dan Wensley, director of North American partnerships for Net Integration Technologies.

But while the show was good for Wensley and his business, he said the lack of big names could hurt the show's long-term future.

"If I were here as an attendee, I'm not sure I (would be) overly impressed," he said, noting the absence on the show floor of companies like Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.

That, he said, could be a challenge when it comes to getting attendees for 2004.

Crosstown traffic
Research firm Jupitermedia, meanwhile, gave Comdex a little crosstown competition with its Computer Digital Expo event, running at the Mandalay Bay resort on the same days as Comdex. The event speakers and attendees CNET News.com spoke with were underwhelmed with the turnout for most of the expo's events. SCO leader Darl McBride's keynote address drew an audience of a few hundred, at most.

But Jupitermedia CEO Alan Meckler said the event lived up to expectations, with the company tallying 4,900 attendees and 54 exhibitors on the modest show floor, which was dominated by a "Made in Canada" pavilion.

"We were a little disappointed in the turnout for the keynote speeches, but generally we're very happy," Meckler said, adding that the event would be repeated next year at the same time, with or without Comdex. "We've got the toehold we need."

Even though many of the companies that were at Comdex had high praise for the show, few said they were ready to book for the next edition. Show organizers were offering plenty of deals for those ready to commit on the spot, but many vendors said they were waiting to see whether the leads from this year panned out.

Faurot said that attracting more big-name companies back to the show floor is a top priority for next year.

"I think next year you will see considerably more of the key vendors that need to be on the show floor, on the show floor," Faurot said. "We're looking to get key companies back." However, the 2004 edition is not going to double its square footage, he said.

For the 2003 show, many of the companies that Comdex wanted to draft were unwilling to even discuss the possibility, according to Faurot. Now, though, a third of the top 15 companies on organizers' list are ready to have a conversation about it, he said.

"Now we just have the normal job of selling," he said. "The thing that's exciting now is to have a full 12 months."

CNET News.com's David Becker contributed to this report.

 

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