Comdex staggers into kickoff; interest wanes

Comdex/Fall 2002 kicked off in Las Vegas yesterday in the same sort of depressed state that has gripped the technology industry for more than a year.

Conference officials said they expect 400 fewer exhibitors and at most a match of the 125,000 attendees from last year, when many people were hesitant to travel in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The downturn, along with significant debt, has clearly had an impact on the conference's producer, Key3Media Group Inc., which puts on other events as well. Last week, the Los Angeles firm reported a third-quarter net loss of $315.7 million and said it's exploring various options, including a restructuring, sale or bankruptcy filing.

But the tough economy may be only one of the factors playing a part in Comdex's sagging fortunes. Computerworld interviews with two dozen IT managers showed that many find the show too big or overwhelming and now prefer to attend more focused events involving their vendors or vertical industries.

"General shows like this have not proven to be of much value to our company," said Jon Dell'Antonia, IS director at OshKosh B'Gosh Inc. in Oshkosh, Wis. "It is virtually impossible to get enough specific information to make them really worthwhile, except on an infrequent basis."

Paul Lanham, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Jones Apparel Group Inc. in Bristol, Pa., said Comdex "seems to be less and less appealing to senior executives." He said he used to attend Comdex but became "disenchanted with the mega-trade-show aspect" and "the resulting logistical nightmares that go with attending it."

Lanham said that in today's tough technology environment, his major vendors have been very responsive to traveling to his home office for focused briefings. When he or his IT colleagues do attend conferences, the events tend to be focused on the apparel manufacturing or retail industry, he said.

Rick Stuller, CIO at Hawaiian Electric Co. in Honolulu, said his firm typically isn't an early adopter, so "the conventional ways of getting information about new products are adequate." He said his preferred vendors often loan products for evaluation purposes, eliminating the need for staffers to see items at shows.

Steven Matheys, CIO at Schneider National Inc., a Green Bay, Wis.-based trucking company and logistics provider, said he doesn't see any value in sending IT staffers to Comdex. They often return saying they saw the "same old stuff," he said. "You go once, you don't necessarily need to go again."

Large technology vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp., however, continue to view Comdex as an important event. Their respective chairmen, Carly Fiorina and Bill Gates, will serve as keynote speakers, and their booths will be among the largest on the exhibition floor, just as in previous years.

But other major vendors, such as IBM and Oracle Corp., say they haven't found a Comdex booth to be particularly useful. An IBM spokeswoman said the vendor hasn't had a floor display since 1998. Instead, the company meets customers and partners in a hotel suite or meeting room, she noted.

"We believed, and continue to believe, that our marketing dollars needed to be spent elsewhere so we could focus on those programs that better reached our evolving customer audience," she said.

Mike Millikin, a senior vice president at Key3Media, said some vendors that had planned to exhibit at Comdex have gone out of business, including one that notified him just days before this year's event started.

"I think it's an extraordinarily difficult time for the IT industry," he said. "None of us has experienced anything like this before. It's very tough."

Millikin called this year's attendance projection "incredibly positive," given the economy. He claimed that event industries overall are seeing a decline of about 20%, yet Comdex is retaining its "core" audience. Paid attendance for the educational programs is tracking about 10% higher, with roughly 2,500 IT professionals expected, he said.

Millikin said the fundamentals of Comdex have stayed the same, while the overall conference themes have evolved. This year's areas of focus are security, wireless, storage, enterprise applications and digital lifestyles, he noted.

Clearly, some IT managers continue to see value in making the trip. Sharon Pietruniak, director of research and development at Academy Sports & Outdoors in Katy, Texas, said her company will send five IT staffers to Comdex, two more than last year. "Comdex is the biggest technology show in the country. We go to learn what's coming up on the horizon. It's like walking into the future," she said.

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Comdex's Decline

Number of Exhibitors

2000: 2,350

2001: 1,500

2002: 1,100*

Number of Attendees

2000: 200,000

2001: 125,000

2002: 125,000*

Exhibition Space

2000: More than 1 million sq. ft.

2001: 750,000 sq. ft.

2002: Not available

*Estimates provided by Key3Media, which declined to disclose exhibition space for 2002.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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