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Cheap is in at Comdex

The convention, once the pinnacle of corporate ostentation, has decidedly gone downscale. If IBM announced it were throwing a kegger in a parking lot, it wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

LAS VEGAS--A company called HTPC Works is using Comdex Fall 2002 to show off a personal computer built specifically to fit into an RV. That product sort of summarizes the feeling at the weeklong trade show here.

The convention, once the pinnacle of corporate ostentation, has decidedly gone downscale. IT executives are reiterating their beliefs that it's nearly impossible to project when or where the upturn will occur. Las Vegas locals, meanwhile, gloomily tick off facts about the low number of attendees and the availability of rooms.

One sign of the times: Hawkers at the Venetian Hotel, which has its own Guggenheim Museum, were offering coupons for $1 off admission to see the recent acquisition of a Velasquez. If IBM announced that CEO Sam Palmisano was throwing a keg party in the parking lot of Circus Circus, it wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

One of the main conversations among attendees and cab drivers revolves around strategies for finding the cheapest hotels. It is remarkably comparable to the home mortgage refinance craze.

The Flamingo, for instance, is offering rooms at $45 a night and throwing in a free $45 meal voucher to some visitors, according to one cab driver, while the Stratosphere is letting rooms out for $25. One pair of tourists switched hotels three times in three nights to get the best deal, said driver Irv Rothman.

Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC, said he got a huge discount at the Mirage--$105 a night--by not booking until three days ago. He tried to get a room at the Bellagio, a fancified Italianate casino, for around $100 but it didn't happen. Kay, though, was one-upped by representatives from software maker VirtualWare, who said they got a Mirage room for $59.

Those who booked well in advance, however, were out of luck. The Hilton, which is letting rooms go at a discount for late arrivals, according to many, is charging $199 to those who diligently reserved in October. One of my co-workers got a AAA discount when he checked in. I checked in at the same time, but my desk clerk said that the Hilton wasn't offering that discount anymore. It's a bit like gambling.

Corporate hospitality has also been curbed. Two to three years ago, companies would hire bands like the B-52s or Barenaked Ladies to play at company functions. Now, except for Microsoft, most have curtailed evening events.

By Tuesday night, most of us will likely be hanging out in the Winnebago, surfing the Net.