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Comdex: 21 and over only

Here in Sin City, you must be 21 to gamble, to drink alcohol, and now to walk on the show floor at Comdex.

LAS VEGAS--Here in Sin City, you must be 21 to gamble, to drink alcohol, and now to walk on the show floor at Comdex.

Starting this year, the computer trade show has upped its age limit from 18 to 21. Show organizers said the change was made at the request of exhibitors who are trying to reach wholesalers and others who will buy their products in volume, rather than the typical retail customer.

Janet Levy was turned away from one show floor entrance because she was accompanied by her 13 year-old, Jared. "It's really a shame," she said. "These kids are the users and creators of tomorrow, and they often know more about this stuff than many adults." Jared said he develops Web sites and is helping his Los Angeles school choose which computers to purchase. Last year, he slipped in by lying about his age.

Conference organizers, however, are adamant. "Those exhibitors aren't there to see 13-year-olds," said Suzanne Lonergan, ZD Comdex & Forums director of corporate communications and public relations. "We have to have tighter controls in order to retain value for the industry." She added that there are plenty of retail computer shows that do welcome minors. "Maybe down the road we can set a separate exhibit area for educational purposes." "

Youngsters also may taint the professional atmosphere, a show executive said. "We want to give the impression of a professional event and having children on the show floor--the strollers, the nappy bags, etc.--is not the image we want to portray," said Len Goodman, ZD Comdex's vice president of operations.

Many exhibitors were unaware of the age requirement change, including Intel, one of the largest.

At least one exhibitor didn't like the idea. "The bottom line is that a large portion of our products are sold to customers under the age of 21, and this is a major venue for us to get our message out," said Iomega director of product marketing Maury Domengeaux. "It would be unfortunate if all our customers couldn't come here."

Despite the prohibition, few kids seemed to have difficulty getting on the floor. "Frankly, we weren't aware of [the age requirement change]. You'd never know it by looking around. I mean, there are kids everywhere," Domengeaux added. In fact, Iomega sponsored a children's contest for creative uses of its technology that gave winners all-expenses paid trips to Comdex, who then had no problem getting on the show floor.

"Nobody's standing at the door checking IDs," said Comdex's Lonergan, "but if a group of 20 kids from a high school show up, it's not going to be allowed. If you show up with an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old, you're not going to be stopped."

Some parents of younger children feel so strongly about getting their kids into the show that they've developed strategies to get by. "We just keep a look out for the goons,'" said Levy. "We try to avoid the guards that give us a hard time." Linda Phillips--who was attending the show with Brandon, 12, and Brittany, 14, two of her seven home-schooled children--took a similar tack, "One guard gave us a hard time. We came around the other entrance and slipped by while the guard was looking the other way." Why deal with the hassle? "It's extremely important to expose kids" to the latest in high technology, she said.

But it's not just the educational experience that draws kids and parents here. At Comdex, companies spend millions on outrageous stunts, shows, games, and giveaways that might be more suited to Disneyland than a corporate buyers show.

"Maybe they just don't want kids to see the adults making such fools of themselves," grinned one attendee, as he jumped into a racing car simulator.