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Optimism wanes at Vegas network confab

The mood is different at this year's Networld+Interop confab in Las Vegas compared with last year's crowd filled with economic euphoria. What a difference a year makes.

LAS VEGAS--What a difference a year makes.

Last year, with the economy booming, some 60,000 people flooded into a packed Las Vegas Convention Center for the Networld+Interop networking industry trade show, intoxicated by record stock prices and an insatiable customer appetite for the latest technology. Network equipment makers paraded their wares to customers with seemingly bottomless budgets. Cisco Systems even handed out fliers with directions to a mammoth job fair at the show located across the street, where job hunters could immediately interview for jobs.

But this year, the swagger seems gone.

Though show organizers say they expect attendance to reach last year's numbers, many attendees--from chief executives to employees manning their companies' booths on the show floor and even cab drivers--say there are fewer people at this year's convention. Cabletron Systems Chief Executive Piyush Patel, a veteran of many Interop shows, believes attendance is down as much as 30 percent this year.

While the Las Vegas Convention Center is filled with companies selling their products, the show floor isn't packed with potential buyers. Most attendees say the show floor--usually a sea of people--has less traffic this year.

Sharon Tikotzky, strategy director for Israeli-based M-Systems, said many of her friends at other companies, who normally show up and rent booths, skipped out this year to save money.

"This year is slower than previous years," she said. "But I was expecting it to be even worse."

James Wilson, a product manager for General Bandwidth, agreed. "You can tell companies are not sending as many people, but we've had decent traffic," he said.

With the U.S. economy in decline, networking equipment makers Cisco, 3Com, Foundry Networks and others have been hit hard financially because businesses are spending less on new products that connect office networks to the Internet. Stock valuations have plummeted and many of the companies are in the throes of reorganizations that include layoffs of thousands of workers.

Nevertheless, the people who could afford to come to Vegas are wheeling and dealing. The 15-year-old Networld+Interop confab is the largest trade show in the networking industry, where corporations looking to upgrade their networks can kick the tires on new equipment.

Network administrators and consultants trudging about the show floor said they weren't just window shopping but were ready to buy products for their companies or customers. They say their budgets for networking equipment have not been slashed during the downturn.

Michael Norton, a vice president of consulting firm Computer Solutions in Nevada City, Calif., said he was shopping for Internet-based phone systems for his business customers.

"Every month our business gets better. We have a lot of projects in the pipeline," Norton said. "Because we're in Nevada City, it may be taking longer for the economic downturn to come our way. We have no dot-coms out our way."

Meanwhile, Lambros Orfantopolous, of consulting firm Fiber Net Communications, is helping build a network for an international carrier in North America and was seeking out earthquake safe cabinets that could house networking equipment in California. Thomas Lagnemma, of Allegheny Energy, said his power company is building networks to offer Internet service to customers. He was prowling around the show floor in search of optical networking equipment.

While most people interviewed said attendance seemed down, one company sales manager said business was booming at his booth to the tune of more than 350 sales leads on Tuesday and a similar amount Wednesday.

"We've been popular, but I don't know if it's because of the trinkets we're giving away," said Mike Buckley, a sales manager for network management software maker Chevin.

His company's booth gave away green foam hands and had a $250 contest giveaway for people who could stand on their heads.