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Why E3's shifting to a smaller playing field

Like other tech confabs, the gaming industry's biggest conference seeks intimacy in 2007.

Geek fests are getting smaller, and organizers say that may be a good thing.

On Monday, the Entertainment Software Association announced that it's scaling back the Electronic Entertainment Expo, its signature trade show and the video game industry's largest event.

ESA execs said because it had gotten too big, with 60,000 attendees in May. When the conference was started 11 years ago, organizers thought it would be an ideal format for getting game makers as much attention as their Hollywood brethren. And, it was supposed to be a key venue for retailers to shmooze with game publishers.

But the game industry no longer needs that kind of hand-holding, said ESA president Douglas Lowenstein in an interview with CNET In fact, Lowenstein said the conference was still profitable--if unwieldy.

Lowenstein said the new E3, which he expects will be called the "E3 Interactive Media Festival," will likely be an invite-only event in July 2007, and it probably will have less than 7,000 attendees. The idea, he said, is to give publishers an opportunity to interact directly with media outlets in small settings without all the hoopla.

"You'll be able to sit there and get a demonstration," Lowenstein said, "without having to worry about 30 people jostling you out of the way."

E3 is just the latest in a string of large technology trade shows that have either disappeared or have been significantly downsized. Internet World, once considered the monster conference for the Web, has moved overseas. Comdex, former host to the who's who in computing gear, is a total casualty. And Networld+Interop, the annual social-calendar highlight for the computer networking businesses, has been greatly reduced. Some observers wonder if techies have lost their appetite for big confabs, even as conferences for other industries pick up attendees.

"The only place we've seen a turndown has been in the technology industry," said Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of the Trade Show Exhibitors Association. "It's been modest (but) it's just not growing as much." Schuldenfrei added that ESA's decision on E3 "will put a dent in the (technology trade show industry's) statistics."

When small makes sense
But it's not time to put away the ergonomic backpack and comfortable shoes quite yet. While some big conferences have taken a hit in recent years, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has kept on growing. And smaller conferences, where companies don't feel obliged to shell out major dollars for eye-catching floor displays, appear to be picking up steam.

Echoing ESA's rationale, Schuldenfrei said smaller, in some cases, can be better.

"If I can get the president of EA (to sit down in a small meeting) with the president of the major retailers--the guys who are going to buy a huge amount of these products," Schuldenfrei said, "I don't need an 80-foot-by-80-foot exhibit to accomplish big things."

And he added that trade show costs have been going up across the board even as the technology industry is still recovering from the dot-com bust. Still, he stressed that any downturn in the technology industry's trade show business is "modest."

"It's not doom and gloom," Schuldenfrei said.

"Expo" magazine editor Danica Tormohlen said that she's seen the beginnings of a trend toward smaller meetings, where movers and shakers are able to meet in more personalized settings.

"There has definitely been, in the last couple of years, more targeted personalized meetings," Tormohlen said, "either separate from the trade show or in conjunction with the trade show."

But she also said she doubts the era of the giant technology trade show is over, even for E3.

"There's still plenty of big shows," Tormohlen said, "and I don't think we're going to move away from that completely. And I wouldn't be surprised if E3 had some kind of trade show component that still had hype surrounding it."

Some major E3 exhibitors are already responding to the news.

"For the past 12 years, (SCEA) has participated in (E3) and has used it as an opportunity to communicate to the industry and consumers our vision for gaming and entertainment," said Sony Computer Entertainment of America spokesman Ryan Bowling. "As an ESA member, we support the board's decision to pursue other types of events that can better address the needs of our industry and further its growth."

Unfortunately, SCEA's Bowling said the company no longer has plans for its famous, annual E3 party, perhaps the biggest and glitziest of all E3-related events.

Industry experts agree that for the most part, it's a changing market, not red ink, behind much of the downsizing. Steve Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management, said the technology industry's trade shows, as a whole, have done "exceedingly" well for at least the last two years.

"Technology industry events are not going away, they are evolving," said Hacker. "Exhibitors may say, 'Costs are going up, but it's still a good return on our investment.' When they stop saying that, we've got a problem."