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Comdex Goes Dark for the First Time

The trade show plans to return next year with a focus on corporate technology buyers

June 24, 2004|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Comdex, the Las Vegas trade show that grew as fast as chip speeds during the technology boom, has flashed the blue screen of death.

Organizers Wednesday canceled the annual gathering, which grew from 4,000 techies in a single ballroom in 1979 to become an iconic event that lured more than 210,000 exhibitors, buyers and gawkers.

Media Live International, the San Francisco company that runs Comdex, blamed sober corporate spending and the proliferation of specialized trade expos for whittling attendance at the show where William H. Gates Sr. once ran the slide projector for the keynote address of his son, Bill.

"The industry is very different today than it was in the 1990s," said Eric Faurot, Media Live's vice president and general manager. "Bigger was better. Now, it's about return on investment. The question is how do we make this work for our industry today."

Faurot said Media Live planned to reboot Comdex in November 2005 as a show focused on corporate technology buyers. For now, the company will swallow an undisclosed cancellation fee for the event, which was scheduled to begin Nov. 14.

Comdex first showed cracks in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Attendance fell 41% to 125,000. The number of exhibitors declined to 1,700 companies, down from more than 2,300 the year before.

The following year, as tech companies continued to disintegrate, exhibitors cut the amount of floor space they occupied to 455,000 square feet from 806,000. Key companies such as IBM Corp. and Dell Inc. stayed away.

Trade show operators make as much of their money renting space to exhibitors as they do charging admission.

By 2003, the show's former owner, Los Angeles-based Key3Media Group Inc., filed for Bankruptcy Court protection with $370 million in debt, much of it held by investment bank Thomas Weisel Capital Partners.

Thomas Weisel took over Key3's assets last June and formed the privately held Media Live. The first Comdex under Media Live was profitable, but almost unrecognizable to longtime attendees. It hosted just 45,200 visitors and 550 exhibitors.

"The nature of the show just changed so radically," said John C. Dvorak, a columnist with PC Magazine. "It's really faded over the last two or three years."

The declines also hit Las Vegas hotels and restaurants. Comdex generated an estimated $69.5 million in non-gaming revenues for businesses in the city last year, down from more than $250 million in 2000.

"We look forward to their return in 2005," said Marina Nicola, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.

Begun as the Computer Dealers Expo, Comdex grew up as a place for computer and software vendors to strut their stuff.

Such was its influence in the burgeoning world of technology that milestone products such as Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Office were unveiled at Comdex. In 1983, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, whose keynotes are a Comdex fixture, delivered his first address with the technical help of his dad.

"Hardly anybody knew who he was," said Tim Bajarin, president of technology consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc. "He was just another technology guy trying to build a company."

Comdex took off in the 1990s with the spread of the personal computer into homes and businesses. With popularity came bulk. The show in 1997 sprawled across 1.4 million square feet of convention floor space. People lined up for hours for taxis, telephones and meals. Hotels filled up months in advance.

"It tried to be all things to all people," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group and a volunteer member of the Comdex advisory board. "That was really its undoing."

Anchor companies began opting out. Many instead attended the specialized shows that cropped up, such as the Consumer Electronics Show and the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3.

Some companies preferred smaller events, where their message would not get lost in the clutter of digital heart monitors, clock radios and computerized massage chairs. Microsoft, for example, unveiled its Xbox game console at the Game Developer Conference in 1999. This year, Sony Corp. announced its PSP hand-held entertainment device at E3.

"As the [information technology] industry has fragmented and splintered, smaller conferences have sprung up and thrived," said Michael Hughes, director of research at Tradeshow Week magazine. "Events tend to mirror the industries they serve."

Faurot insisted there was still a role for Comdex. "The $915-billion information technology industry needs an event," he said. Media Live has put together an advisory panel of executives from companies such as Dell, Oracle Corp. and Intel Corp.

Analysts also see a need. Said Bajarin: "When a buyer is finalizing his budget for the next year, he still needs a place where he can see everything that's new, talk to the vendors face-to-face and test the products before making his decision."

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