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Comdex full of hot, expensive air

How slow is Comdex this year? Perhaps the clearest indicator of the lull is the presence of signs hardly ever associated with the trade show: "Rooms Available."

LAS VEGAS--How slow was Comdex this year? Canada had its own booth on the main show floor.

With many big U.S. names opting out, the show saw a proliferation of international vendors. And it wasn't so much the likes of Asian giants such as Samsung and Sony, which dominated the main show floor last year. This year, with more than half the exhibitors seeming to have come from outside the United States, the prime Comdex real estate went to many small outfits--such as a chip distributor advertising "Pentum (sic) II and III chips" and another company offering shrink-wrapping services.

The government of the Canary Islands, for instance, came to highlight the tax havens available in a country whose corporate tax rate is 1 percent to 5 percent, according to a representative. Egypt was there to recruit companies looking to outsource support-desk work. China and Taiwan were in full view of each other on the show floor but were diplomatically separated by Hauppauge Computer, maker of TV cards.

In past years, such international booths were mostly relegated to a less-trafficked spot across town at the Sands Convention Center. This year, nearly all the Comdex events were at the Las Vegas Convention Center and adjoining Hilton, in part because of expansion in that area and in part because the show sold 15 percent less booth space than in previous years.

A slower Comdex was particularly bad news for the city's cabbies.

"This is really scary," one driver said after waiting for patrons to show up outside the Las Vegas Hilton. In past years, convention-goers waited in long lines for enough cabs to arrive. This year, it was a long line of cabs waiting for someone in search of a lift.

One driver said there are normally 1,600 cabs roaming the strip, with an extra 500 or so added for Comdex. Some of those extra cabs were taken off duty Tuesday, with the remainder hitting the brakes Wednesday, drivers said.

Not only are the cabs less full, they are bereft of the lucrative ads that have traditionally decorated every inch of the city's fleet. Advertisers such as Iomega and ViewSonic, which have blanketed the city in past years, are less visible this time around.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the Comdex lull is the presence of signs hardly ever associated with the trade show: "Rooms Available."

It's been a rough time for Vegas since Sept. 11. Though Comdex wasn't a miracle cure, one cabbie held out hope that things will improve in early December, when the city plays host to the National Rodeo Finals. Apparently cowboys party harder than techies.

Heavy breathing
The slowdown has not eliminated all excesses, however.

The oxygen bar, seen by some as a sign of the dot-com era's lack of restraint, showed up in portable form outside several doors leading to the show's main halls. For those unfamiliar, an oxygen bar is a place where people pay cash to breathe oxygen without the hassle of filtering out nitrogen and other atmospheric elements.

"It didn't do much for me," said Chris Dunphy, director of competitive analysis at Palm, who noted that it was the most expensive air he had ever inhaled. Jason Hertzberg, a colleague at Palm, calculated that at 12 bucks a pop, he was paying an extra $1.50 per 10 percent oxygen above the naturally occurring 21 percent.

Despite a lot of onlookers, sales weren't that great, said one young woman working at the oxygen booth. The worker said she has better luck selling oxygen at the Vegas bars to clubbers looking for a rush.

"There, they have money to spend," she said. "Here, everyone expects it for free."

The Comdex floor wasn't limited to high-tech companies. U.S. Jaclean, maker of the Shiatsu Massage Chair, had a popular booth on the main floor. Few were buying the $3,000 chairs, but many took a test drive.

The award for sheer oddity went to Alexander Kalifano, a Las Vegas-based entrepreneur specializing in world globes made of semi-precious stones.

"You give your client candy, they eat it and forget you," a company representative said, hoisting a five-pound pen set featuring a small version of the globes. "But you give them this, they will remember you."

While security was beefed up this year, many Comdex attendees noted that it was not what it could be. By Tuesday, attendees were even able to bring in bags, and a number of people said their bags went in unchecked by either the trained dogs or those manning the metal detectors.

Of course, the feeling of insecurity is not bad for everyone in Las Vegas. A worker at a company that specializes in bodyguard services for Fortune 500 executives said revenue has jumped 40 percent year on year. "It's good, but it's bad," he said.