November 17, 1997 1:25 PM PST

Comdex marketing an art form

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Comdex grabs a big slice of the marketing pie for many high-tech companies. But industry watchers say there's an art to serving up a Comdex message in order to get the biggest return on a marketing investment and to avoid getting lost in the shuffle.

Networking company Novell (NOVL), for example, is spending about ten times as much on the show as it did last year, said Ed McGarr, vice president of product marketing at Novell.

Instead of just hosting a booth this year, the company is opening its wallet a little wider to network the entire convention audience--all 250,000 attendees. It has beefed up advertising on the airlines that will be bringing in the trade-show-goers, and will send employees to monitor and service the show's network, tagged "the Comdex intranet."

McGarr, noted, however, that there is a risk that goes along with marketing on such a large scale.

"If this network goes down, you have a really negative marketing message," he said.

Start-up companies also are pouring their bucks into marketing at the mother of all trade shows.

Claudia Temple, marketing director at PeakSoft, formerly Peak Technologies, said the company is spending more this year because Comdex is its foundation show. PeakSoft spends about 25 percent of its marketing budget on trade shows, and out of that budget, Comdex gets 25 percent.

"Comdex gets the lion's share of our marketing budget because we want to show ourselves to as large a group of people as we can," said Temple.

But more than just gaining exposure of its products, Comdex offers an opportunity to meet face-to-face with distributors and resellers, as well as to meet potential partners and editors, she said. That exposure is the driving force behind its marketing efforts.

Tony Zuccarino, vice president of marketing at VDONet, said Comdex gets about twice the budget of other trade shows because there is a lot of competition for scarce resources.

He said that, because booths are sprawled out into every nook and cranny and at every hotel, unless you are in one of the premiere locations it is hard to get any bang for the marketing buck. If you can't be on the floor at the convention center, then having a suite at the hotel next door can be much more productive for a company than settling for a less-than-desirable location on the trade show floor.

"If it is a booth, you have to achieve a certain noise factor in order to get the attention you want, but a suite is still pretty expensive," said Zuccarino.

Indeed, given the expense of renting one, a booth may not be the best way for small companies to spend limited resources.

"If you are going to spend money, you are going to have to spend a lot to get attention," said Abigail Johnson of the Roeder-Johnson public relations firm, which specializes in technology.

Johnson recommends that clients do not make any announcements at Comdex because the event is so huge that it makes it difficult for a small company to be heard above the din.

One industry source called Comdex "a waste of time" because of the difficulty of getting attention. The source argued that it would be a better use of hundreds of thousands of dollars to plan a road show to seven different cities. "For a small company, [you have to look at[who is going to notice them, and who is going to miss them," he said.

But Zuccarino said there is a certain level of expectation that goes along with Comdex that cannot be overlooked.

"As a general rule, if you are not at other trade shows it isn't a big deal," he said. "But if you want to be a player [in this industry], you have to have a presence at Comdex to meet customers. It is almost a requirement."

Zuccarino added that spending money is a requirement as well if companies want to appear credible and project an image of health and growth.

But spending alone isn't the way to make Comdex marketing work.

Johnson said if a small company is going to attend, it needs to be ready to connect with its partners, customers, and the media ahead of time.

And that is what PeakSoft is doing. In addition to hosting a booth, the company had several meetings with editors and trade writers before the show. Last year was the company's first Comdex, and they introduced a product at the show.

"Going to Comdex was instrumental in how the first year transpired," said Temple. "Our biggest fear going into the show is that we would get lost and that no one would notice us amidst the trumpets blaring, but that wasn't the case."

Other tactics can be equally effective. Zuccarino said VDONet is not setting up a booth this year, but rather is using the opportunity to meet with clients. "We will pack in weeks or months of road trips into one jam-packed week of meetings," he said.

There will be about 2,100 presenting companies at Comdex this year--about the same number as last year. The show is being held in Las Vegas between November 17 and November 22.

 

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