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Comdex cancellation packs little surprise

The dot-com bubble burst in 2000, but Comdex's hot air has been leaking more slowly.

Although organizers announced Wednesday that Comdex 2004 has been canceled, for tech executives like P.G. Bartlett the show died long ago.

Bartlett, vice president of marketing for specialty software maker Arbortext, said his company gave up on Comdex in the late 1990s, as the show's broad audience made connecting with potential customers a hit-and-miss proposition.

"A lot of the people who come to the Comdex booths are trick-or-treaters rather than serious buyers," he said. "If the density of potential buyers is low...it's just not worth it."

Comdex producer MediaLive International announced Wednesday that the 2004 version of the long-running trade show has been canceled. MediaLive expects to resurrect the show in 2005, but tech executives said the company will face a tough time battling declining attendance numbers and the growing prominence of a rival Las Vegas conference, the Consumer Electronics Show, better known as CES.

"We learned where our money was best spent," Bartlett said. "Comdex has name recognition, but it's not as worthwhile as going to an event where you can be prominent and your buyers can find you."

Rick Bergman, senior vice president of the desktop PC business at graphics-chip maker ATI, said he's been going to Comdex for the last 15 years but recently started to question the merits.

"It used to be a great place to close deals," Bergman said. "But the importance has really diminished over the last couple of years as the attendance has gone down and the market has shifted."

For suppliers of PC components like ATI, regional shows have become more important for connecting with computer makers, while CES has gained clout as ATI and other formerly PC-centered companies delve into consumer electronics.

"We've greatly increased our presence at CES," Bergman said. "All of our products play now with consumer goods...CES did a good job of pulling the PC guys in, but the reverse didn't really happen with Comdex."

If Comdex can't make it back on its feet, it's unlikely to deal a major blow to the Las Vegas economy. Though the trade show was once a highlight on the local calendar, creating $254.6 million in nongaming business for the city in 2000, its impact has shriveled in recent years.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates the show's economic impact shrunk to $168 million in 2001 and was down to $69 million last year. It estimates that in 2004 Comdex would have brought in 50,000 attendees and $70 million in nongaming revenue. By contrast, CES now generates about $157 million for the city.

"There is not another show to fill Comdex's spot, but November is a strong month for shows," said Marina Nicola, a spokeswoman for the authority.

Comdex's decline started when it tried to be everything to everyone, said Alan Meckler, CEO of research company Jupitermedia, which produced a sparsely attended crosstown rival to Comdex last year.

"They lost their way many years ago when they tried to combine consumer electronics and IT," Meckler said. "We tried to restore what Comdex had been; unfortunately, we have not been able to."

Meckler said Jupiter's rival Computer Digital Expo lived up to expectations, but the company will not be running the show again this year.

Exhibitors are looking for specialized shows, Meckler said, and though the Computer Digital Expo targeted IT companies, the same audience that the revamped Comdex is expected to address, it was not able to draw big-name companies.

Meckler added that Comdex has relationships with larger names and might be able to draw the high-profile companies needed to attract a lot of attendees in the future.

The decline of Comdex can be measured by looking at some of the big companies that decided to pull out of the show during the last few years. Gateway, IBM, Dell and Intel all at some point passed on buying floor space, opting instead to simply send representatives to Las Vegas at the time of the show to meet with press and buyers.

Sony Electronics was another high-profile loss for Comdex. Instead of attending the 2002 show, the company hosted its own event, Dream World.

"We have not been a major presence at Comdex for the last couple years," Rick Clancy, Sony's senior vice president of corporate communications said. "We've been focusing our resources in terms of people and finances elsewhere."

Many others have been doing the same.