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Macworld hopes for turnaround

Macworld Expo After a disappointing turnout last year, Macworld could witness a rebound in attendance.

Macworld Expo SAN FRANCISCO--Organizers of Macworld Expo have stemmed last year's waning tide of exhibitors and may see a slight rebound for the four-day event, which opens here tomorrow.

MHA Event Management, which has organized the event for International Data Group since its debut in 1985, expects attendance to surpass last year's figure of 75,400. Preregistration is up 10 percent over a year ago, and the organizers hope to get an added rush of walk-in business from those interested in learning more about the Apple-Next technology merger from keynote speaker Gilbert Amelio, Apple chairman and chief executive.

"Our pre-registration cut-off date was Dec. 4 and the Next announcement came after that," said Mike Hallal, MHA president. "We're hoping for a huge surge in walk-ins based on the Next announcement, but its tough to predict. Most people who are pre-registered are already plugged into the market and planning to attend."

The year's biggest Apple gathering comes on the heels of a flurry of press about the troubled company. Just days ago Apple (AAPL) announced it expects a first-quarter drop in revenues and a whopping operating loss of $100 million to $150 million, far more than analysts' expectations.

It also follows a surprise announcement last month that Apple would acquire Steve Jobs's Next Software in a move to jump-start the development of a new operating system.

As of Friday, MHA had signed up 484 exhibitors for Macworld, a figure that's slightly ahead of the 481 vendors who attended last year. Although attendance fees provide significant revenue for any trade show operator, exhibitor fees make up the lion's share.

"We expect we'll get 500 to 510 companies for the show," Hallal said. "The number of companies has fluctuated in the past, but the amount of space they are taking has increased."

MHA expects to sell more than 1,800 booths this year, up from 1,550 last year. And the rates per square foot have also risen this year to upwards of $43 from $41 last year, Hallal said.

MHA has pulled a profit on its Macworld shows every year, even when the number of vendors declined last year by 11 percent--the first such reversal.

"It's been a rough period for the Macintosh market. We've seen a lot of the smaller vendors go out of business," Hallal said. "There's also been a lot of mergers and acquisitions, so for every 10 small companies we lose we may get one large company. That's why we're selling larger [booths]."

Motorola, is hoping that doubters will be convinced at Macworld.

"People are looking for clarity in Apple's strategy. Hopefully Amelio's speech will offer that to people who are shopping and looking to find something that's compatible with Apple's future," said Dennis Schneider, president of worldwide marketing for StarMax. "The happier outcome would be that his speech is good enough to convince people who say they weren't going to grow their Mac base, to say they will."

Schneider said StarMax plans this Macworld as a "coming out party" for its new Mac clone.

His primary goal in attending the trade show is to get at least 10,000 leads for his channel partners to stimulate sales for their businesses.

For Andy Chang, vice president of sales with Mac clone maker Umax, Macworld is a place to "see and be seen."

"Macworld is more of an image show than [one for] getting customer leads," Chang said.

Andy Lewis, president of Daystar Digital, said his company conducts more meaningful business in hotel suites with major customers than inside the expo.

"Generally speaking, the trade floor is seen by resellers. But nowadays, most of the research can be done on Web sites, so you don't need to go to trade shows to get product literature or see product demos," he said. "Eighty to 90 percent of the benefit of trade shows is networking."

Lewis added that Daystar, which sells high-end clones priced at $5,000 to $10,000, may place less emphasis on attending future Macworld shows, where many of the customers are seeking systems in the $3,000 range.

"We'll be at the San Francisco Macworlds, but we're wondering whether we'll attend the Macworld in Boston later this year," he said.

MHA, which has also run the Mac event in Boston since 1985, said the East Coast event has not grown at the same rate as San Francisco's Macworld.

"It's still healthy, but it hasn't had the same growth," Hallal said, adding that the company plans to announce some changes to its East Coast venue during the San Francisco expo.

MHA will see competition later this year. Apple, IBM and Motorola are teaming up to hold a MacOS trade show at the same convention site and on the same dates as PC Expo in New York.

"Apple wanted a few of us clone vendors to attend," Chang said. "The key mission is to expand visibility of the Mac platform." He noted that the new trade show is designed to reach people who are not already Mac loyalists, which Macworld attendees traditionally are.

But Chang noted: "Macworld is the foundation. So we'll always be there."