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Organizer cancels Comdex 2004

It had been one of the biggest events in the tech world. Can it return in 2005?

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
6 min read
Computer trade show Comdex, once the biggest event on the tech calendar, has been canceled this year, a victim of the growing interest in shows emphasizing consumer electronics and specialist IT gear.

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Eric Faurot, vice president of Comdex organizer MediaLive International, revealed the plans in an exclusive interview with CNET News.com, saying the company plans to give Comdex a breather after years of falling attendance, in the number of both attendees and vendors.

"We feel that while we could run Comdex profitably this year, it really wouldn't serve the interests of the broader IT industry," he said. The international versions of the show are expected to continue as planned.


What's new:
This year's Comdex computer trade show has been canceled, a victim of the growing interest in shows emphasizing consumer electronics and specialist IT gear.

Bottom line:
A return of the show in 2005 depends on the ability of a newly formed advisory board comprising major vendors to rally support for the annual conference.

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Faurot maintained that Comdex, which has a long-term contract with the Las Vegas Convention Center running through 2007, would be back in 2005. Key to that return, however, is the ability of a newly formed advisory board comprising major vendors to rally support for the annual conference.

Comdex traces its roots to a casino owner who launched the Computer Dealers Exposition in 1979. Four years later a young Bill Gates delivered his first keynote speech and demonstrated Microsoft's new DOS 2.0. Although it grew to become one of the biggest trade shows in the world, at its peak attracting more than 200,000 attendees and filling more than 1 million square feet of floor space, Comdex's fortunes have sagged in the past few years as the tech economy faltered and security jitters kept some companies from traveling.

At the same time, the semirival Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has prospered, thanks in part to tech stalwarts such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell pushing gadgets that promise fatter profit margins than PCs, which have largely become a commodity business.

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This year's Comdex has been canceled. What are the odds it will return?

Slim to none: Interest from attendees and vendors has evaporated.
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Faurot said many of Comdex's problems were incubated in the dot-com bubble, when the former owners of the conference alienated exhibitors with high prices for floor space and attendees began complaining that the show had grown to unmanageable proportions.

"The brand came to represent some of the excesses of the '90s," he said. "It takes time to build trust back in the brand."

Many key exhibitors--most notably Dell--pulled out of Comdex in the late 1990s and to date have reappeared only on the sidelines, entertaining customers and press at private events away from the main show floor. (Dell had a small floor display at last year's show.) Faurot acknowledged that the practice of renting a hotel suite rather than booth space also hurt Comdex.

"It did create a tremendous sense of frustration," he said.

MediaLive last year tried to recast Comdex as a specialist show for IT managers, but the event drew only a handful of big-name exhibitors--despite modest cuts in the price of booth space--and a crowd of about 40,000 "qualified buyers," Faurot said.

The lackluster exhibitor lineup--about 550 largely smaller companies, many from Asia pushing narrow products such as hard drive enclosures--also hurt last year's show. In hopes of remedying that, MediaLive is forming a corporate advisory board for Comdex that will include representatives from Microsoft, Oracle, Dell and other tech giants. Executives from those companies, who have already been approached by MediaLive and expressed an interest in participating on such a board, will help reshape Comdex to make it more relevant to IT decision-makers, he said.

MediaLive will face a number of challenges in rebuilding Comdex, including increasing competition from the CES, which continues to attract more of the gadget-focused computing companies that once made Comdex a mainstay. The organizers of CES recently announced that next year's show will expand to use the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Convention Center, reviving the geographic sprawl that helped make the booming Comdex such a logistical challenge.

Much of the technology world's interest has shifted to specialty trade shows, such as the CTIA wireless shindig and Sun Microsystems' JavaOne programmer bash.

Technology and economic trends haven't been kind to other general-purpose computing shows, either. New York's PC Expo has been revamped into TechXNY and now competes for attention with a sparsely attended American version of Germany's giant CeBit. The main CeBit show in Germany still managed to draw a crowd of 510,000 this year, down slightly from previous years but still ranking as the biggest in the industry.

Comdex has mirrored the up-and-down fortunes of the computing industry for nearly 25 years. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson launched the Computer Dealers Exposition at the dawn of the PC era, with the first event in 1979 attracting about 150 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees, mostly mesmerized by new Apple Computer products. The show grew to 83,000 attendees in 1983, when Microsoft Chairman Gates delivered his first keynote speech, showing off the company's snazzy new DOS 2.0 operating system with a slide show that featured actual slides.

The show kept growing with the PC industry, hitting 210,000 attendees and taking over most of Las Vegas in 1995, when Adelson's Interface Group sold Comdex and a number of related trade shows to Japanese computer distributor and trade magazine publisher Softbank.

The good time kept rolling through the 1990s, with Comdex peaking in 1998, when it attracted 212,000 attendees and 2,480 exhibitors eating up 1.38 million square feet of exhibit space.

Comdex came under the purview of Key3Media, a new Softbank spin-off dedicated to running trade shows, in 1999. The bottom fell out two years later, when the sagging tech economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks combined to push attendance down to 125,000.

It's been downhill from there, for Comdex and Key3, which recast itself as privately held MediaLive when it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.