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Comdex plays to a small house

The IT industry's biggest trade show is attracting the smallest crowd in a decade despite attempts to reassure attendees with increased security.

Comdex is attracting the smallest crowd in a decade, according to the show's organizers, who estimated that about 125,000 people showed up this week for the IT industry's biggest annual trade show.

At its peak from 1998 to 2000, Comdex drew nearly 200,000 people, with IT professionals and administrators overrunning Las Vegas' hotels, casinos and convention centers for a week in November.

Show organizers had expected a turnout of about 150,000 for Comdex Fall 2001. But they underestimated the effects of a weak economy and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11--factors that combined to push attendance down to a level unseen since the early 1990s.

"This is obviously a challenging year," said Rick Moore, spokesman for Key3Media, the show's organizer. "Comdex is a mirror for the tech industry. At the end of the day, if the industry is thriving, they can afford to spend more money on these events."

The weak showing underscores a troubling year for the convention industry. Technology-focused conferences were already suffering from poor attendance because of economic uncertainty when the September terrorist attacks prompted many companies to slash their travel plans. Several conferences were canceled, including Apple Computer's Expo, and event organizers at other shows scrambled to offer assurances of security and perks such as free airline tickets to lure reluctant travelers.

To tighten security at Comdex, Key3Media had banned laptop computers along with other types of bags earlier this month, but it quickly altered the restriction.

Key3Media is attempting to improve security precautions to calm fears about terrorist attacks and ultimately increase attendance. But Moore said that much of this year's shortfall had to do with the dot-com bust.

"There are several hundred companies that were here in the last three years, and they're no longer in business. You do the math," he said. "But the people who are here are the ones that are really serious."

Comdex, in its 22nd year, runs through Friday.