Death to Comdex

There won't be a Comdex in Las Vegas this fall. That doesn't even sound surprising, does it? But it would have been unthinkable in 1995, when Comdex founder Sheldon Adelson cashed out for $864 million and used the money to build a Las Vegas hotel. Back then, everyone thought Comdex would keep going forever.

Today, Comdex has finally run out of gas. Its current owner canceled this year's show and is casting about for ways to make Comdex important to IT people again.

But their worst nightmare could be Adelson.

A year ago, Adelson smelled blood in the water. He was busily telling interviewers everything he thought was wrong with Comdex, which lost 40% of its attendance in 2001 and never recovered. Adelson said he was thinking about launching a trade show to compete head-to-head against Comdex -- same week, same town, but it would be the show that Adelson believes Comdex should have become.

And that's no idle threat. Adelson controls his own hotel and convention center in Las Vegas -- bought with Comdex profits. He's worth almost $2 billion. He's 70, but he's still the man who started Comdex 25 years ago and built it into the monster show it once was. If anyone can create a Comdex-killer, Adelson can.

Sounds a lot more interesting than reviving Comdex itself, doesn't it?

That's because Comdex really is past its prime. Look, trade shows rise, peak and then fall. From the mid-1980s until 2001, Comdex towered over the IT industry. It grew with the rise of PCs and the dealers who sold them -- remember, Comdex was short for "Computer Dealers Exposition."

Before Comdex, the monster show was the National Computer Conference, a not-for-profit, volunteer-staffed event that was half trade show, half technical symposium. That made sense from the 1960s through the mid-'80s, when data processing departments leased their mainframes, wrote most of their own software and needed research papers as much as they needed buying guides.

The NCC peaked in 1983. But with the PC revolution, it no longer made sense. By 1988, it was gone. Comdex peaked in 1997. But somewhere along the line, it, too, stopped making sense. Sure, it was too big and impossible to navigate. But that had been true for a decade. Everybody complained, but they still came. Then they stopped coming. Now Comdex is dead in the water.

Can Comdex's owner save it? Yes -- and no. MediaLive International probably can rescue its investment in what's still a valuable property. The company can save what was once its crown jewel from Adelson's Comdex-killer.

But only by killing Comdex.

Yes, it's a powerful brand. But today the negatives outweigh the positives. Both vendors and IT people hear Comdex and think of the PC-era show that has outlived its usefulness. And they always will. Which means every effort to revive a show named Comdex is doomed.

Do MediaLive's executives know this? Probably. Last year, they tried to turn Comdex into a show focused on enterprise IT. Attendance was barely half the 80,000 the company had hoped for. The name still drove people away.

In April, MediaLive created a user-oriented advisory council. The company also formed an advisory board full of vendors that had abandoned Comdex in recent years. MediaLive now has all the input it needs.

And last week, MediaLive spiked this fall's Comdex.

Don't bring it back, guys. Give us a new show in November 2005. One that helps enterprise IT people learn and make decisions for what they do today. One that can grow into the big show that brings the industry together. One that will give IT people a reason to come -- and to forget Comdex.

If you don't kill Comdex, someone else will. And you've got a pretty good idea who.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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