Comdex: A booth with a view

News.com's veteran Comdex reporter Michael Kanellos leaves his heart (and T-shirt) on the Vegas Strip.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
More than a million people will walk down Convention Center Drive in Las Vegas this week, and very few of them will be there to pay homage to the Debbie Reynolds Casino.

Instead, the conventioneers will amble toward the other major attraction on the street: the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center and the neighboring Las Vegas Hilton, home of the Comdex.

The undisputed god of all trade extravaganzas will attract 215,000 visitors this year and feature exhibits from over 2,100 vendors. Millions will be spent over the five-day period. Countless shrimp will give their lives.

Walking or driving the mile-long stretch from the Strip to the Convention Center always fills one with a sense of epic grandeur and anticipation, especially on the first day of the show.

Off in the distance stand the twin towers of the Riviera. Young men flank both sides of the road hawking pornography. As you approach closer, the large inflatable balloons advertising Iomega or IBM come into view. Banners of Novell flank the building. And for comic relief, there are the models demonstrating "The Computer on a Belt." At 9:00 a.m., someone is already hawking Dove bars.

Medieval messages
Historians might try to claim that this differs from the scene outside the great walled trading cities of the Middle Ages, but somehow I doubt it. Bamberg may look stately now, but those medieval walls once held signs like "Larchmont IS the Leech Leader," and "The Seed Plow Becomes the Speed Plow--Booth 1416."

The Debbie Reynolds, however, may portend the future for Comdex. The once proud casino, which featured wax replicas of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Don Rickles in the lobby, was auctioned off to the World Wide Wrestling Federation earlier this year after limping through bankruptcy.

Comdex is still gigantic, but signs of wear are beginning to show. A number of large companies, including IBM, Intel, and Dell, are not setting up booths. They only have meeting rooms. Some hotels the week before the event sent out bulletins to high-tech companies that hugely overpriced rooms were still available, an almost unheard of occurrence.

Even Softbank, the host of the show, recently predicted that this year's event "would be the most navigable Comdex ever." In other words, attendance could be a little light this year.

Their hands on your Hanes
In other notes, Susan Littleton, trade show coordinator for Micron Electronics, offers this tidbit of advice: Pack your T-shirts in nondescript luggage. Translation: When you send out a box in Las Vegas, you have to let union workers handle it. Certain types of packages aren't just moved from place to place, Littleton said.

"If it says Hanes on the box, it will be broken into," she said. "We will put a whole pallet of boxes into black shrinkwrap to completely wrap them or send them to the hotel."

From the outside, trade shows look like fairly simple affairs: Set up some computers, order a deli platter, and hand out fliers to anyone toting a cardboard IBM box. Organizing these events, however, remains a logistical and financial nightmare.

Floor space at this week's Comdex, for instance, goes for $49.95 a square foot, up $3 from last year. Expenses flood in from there. If a box shows up before, or after its appointed day, it comes with an additional $30 fee. All set-up, electrical work, and take down must be performed by expensive union employees.

"Chicago is probably the most horrendous. You have to hire a decorator. It's basically one of the union guys," she said. His job is to hang pictures.

Get it while it's hot
Then, there's food. Coffee runs close to $145 a day, for each company. For that, a company gets 10 packets of coffee, bottled water, ten tea bags and labor. If you only use three packs of coffee, the rest is taken away, and resold to the exhibitor for $145 a day. The "Downtown Deli" and "South of the Border" platters, meanwhile, go for $255 and $195.

But on top of all that, there is the X-factor. Namely, what will get stolen and what will break during a five-day stay on a convention floor. T-shirts are often a target for the local hired help, but they are also known to nick display equipment.

Attendees are no better. At a recent PC Expo, attendees had swiped all of the mousepads from one wall of a Micron display in the first morning.

Is it too big a hassle? Apparently for Micron. The company backed out of renting meeting rooms. Instead, company executives will meet their important clientele and contacts in coffee shops.