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Comdex Bites the Vegas Dust
Legendary Industry Event Reaches the End of the Trail
By: Roger Strukhoff
Jun. 24, 2004 12:00 AM
The word came through the morning newspaper: there will be no Comdex this year.
It has been "postponed" until 2005. I doubt it. Rather, this sounds like the death knell for the one event that described the arc of the personal computer business, from its informal, hippiefied beginnings in 1979, through an exuberant decade running from the late 80s through the late 90s, to some alarming wretched excess in 2000, to its swift and apparently fatal downfall in the 21st century.
Let me clear about something right up front: Comdex never won any friends. For years it was a must-attend event for the industry, but one that was often dreaded, usually loathed, and tolerable only with solid expense accounts that covered rented drivers, golf, and nights at the Crazy Horse or Olympic Gardens.
Remember the 80s?
In the 80s, as the show started to gather serious steam, Las Vegas was characterized by a shortage of hotel rooms for a convention this size and a complete lack of decent hotel rooms for an event of any size. The show's organizers took advantage of this situation by controlling hotel bookings, jacking up the prices for less-than-mediocre rooms to appalling levels, then taking a percentage of the excess for themselves.
The incredible Vegas hotel construction boom started in the late 80s with the Mirage, and added an additional three to five thousand rooms each year for a decade, obviating the previous shortage and bringing accommodations up to standard. Prices continued to climb, too, with the show organizers continuing to very publicly benefit from what felt, to attendees, like extortionist rates.
You Had to Be There
But what were ya gonna do about it? You had to be there. Your company had to be there, and in a big way. Never mind that major parts of the main exhibit floor felt like morning in Shinjuku station. Never mind that for many years the exhibits were scattered throughout a dozen major hotels, with some unfortunates banished to the McCarran center all the way downtown. Never mind that taxi lines were 90 minutes long, rental cars almost impossible to get, and good shuttle service non-existent.
Comdex was where you had to be. Each year it seemed to get a little bigger, each year major announcements were either made or solidified there, and each year Comdex played an important role in hooking up vendors with dealers, resellers, and the industry media.
There was a little dip in enthusiasm during an early-90s tech downturn, but nothing that seriously threatened the show. Most industry veterans will remember that Spring Comdex was a big deal in those days as well, even though it shuttled between Atlanta and Chicago, trying to find its definitive place in the world. Microsoft came to the rescue of this event in this timeframe by working with the producer to cast it as a "Windows World" event, and for awhile, this strategy seemed to be a good one. The show had a clear strategy and drew a very large, but not overwhelming, group of people who were continuing to create an industry.
Things Start to Get Ugly
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the show seemed to get fatter and sloppier every year. The company I was with in the glory days, IDG, chartered helicopters two years in a row to ferry top advertisers from The Strip to the Thomas Mack Center (home of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels basketball team), to witness a concert and party for 10,000 of the company's best friends (and employees).
I witnessed a scene of a well-known industry pioneer holding center stage and slurping down dozens of oysters while tossing off his, uh, unique opinions about the parentage of other industry pioneers amidst a magazine-sponsored bacchanal at a local watering hole.
I witnessed a client of mine making the snap decision to extend a gargantuan party another two hours (at a cost of a mere $20K) when the midnight bell struck one year.
No booth could be big enough, no idea weird enough. One company brought in professional boxers to its booth knock the crap out of each other on-site in full view of us gawking, white-collar wimps. I got autographs from Spud Webb, from Nadia Comaneci, from Reggie Jackson, from other various and sundry athletes and "personalities" booked to stump for technology about which I'm sure they had not a clue.
Amidst the excess, which admittedly, was a lot of fun, was the dawning, disturbing realization that the show was losing any focus that it ever had. Bill Gates keynotes became rock-star events, with squadrons of just-folks driving their mobile homes across the desert to witness the man live onstage at the Alladdin. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but in the late 90s and into the year 2000 it was clear that Comdex was becoming something that it had never intended to be.
It's certainly easy enough to point fingers at those most culpable. I certainly have my opinions--as a Comdex exhibitor, attendee, speaker, and partier over the years--but rather than single out a lot of individuals, let's just say that the original Comdex management team seem to have a fairly callous attitude toward the people it needed to care the most about, namely, its exhibitors.
Comdex was always free to "qualified" attendees, so derived most of its revenue from renting exhibition space, bolstered by ancillary promos at the venue, a show guide, and of course, its notorious cut of the hotel revenue. Show management never had to cater particularly to attendees, and as the years went by, cast an increasingly wide net as to which "qualified" attendees it would solicit to attend the event.
Show management's attitude toward attendees was neither particularly helpful nor hostile. Since the large majority of attendees were getting in for free, there was no compelling reason for serious consideration as to how these people were served. A smaller number of attendees, maybe 2%, paid increasingly substantial fees to attend seminars and tutorials at Comdex, and my observation was that these Comdex "sessions" could actually be quite useful. I've always felt that this aspect of the event was underserved and underdeveloped over the years.
Failure, in My Opinion
But the true failure of Comdex management related to its treatment of exhibitors. It's no secret that a large percentage of show attendance was a function of exhibiting companies. IDG probably sent three or four hundred people every year through its various divisions, and IDG was a relatively modest exhibitor. The major U.S. and Japanese technology companies, most of whom had tremendous presences at the show over the years collectively sent untold thousands of people from every level of their organizations to Las Vegas.
And management treated these companies abysmally. Whether exercising no apparent control over attendee quality, profiteering on accommodations, taking the hardest line possible in a boiler-room atmosphere to re-sign exhibitors, or standing aloof from the actual proceedings while preening to global media that attendance figures had set a new record, I saw very little good will being developed over the years.
The warning signs were there all along. Apple pulled out sometime relatively early on, then IBM made a loud noise about abandoning the show in the late 90s. The major Japanese vendors seemed to be less aggressive. The buzz within the industry was that maybe Comdex was not really as important as it had been. (The irony being that by the late 90s much of the former inconvenience was gone: the building boom had created tens of thousands of high-quality new rooms, shuttle service was vastly improved, and all the exhibits were mostly located in two spectacular venues, the expanded Las Vegas Convention Center and the new Sands Convention Center, built by the show's original owner.)
Then came the technology meltdown. Already in freefall by November 2000, the industry bravely kept its commitments to Comdex that year and produced what was billed as a record-breaking show that is best remembered for the ubiquitous throngs of unfortunate immigrants immediately outside the convention center, slapping sleazy sex-related flyers into unwitting attendees' hands. (The witting attendees, of course, had figured out the finer details of the Vegas demimonde years before.)
Comdex would probably have had trouble surviving the meltdown in any case. When hundreds of former exhibitors are simply no longer in business, when others lose two-thirds or more of their market value, and when criminals flying airplanes into buildings deeply chill the travel industry, who can expect a colossus such as Comdex to remain healthy? But I can tell you that very few, if any, tears were shed by executives making the decision to erase the show from their marketing plans.
I doubt anyone over the years got any sort of warm feeling when thinking about the crew in charge of the event. Yes, business is business, and you don't go into business to make good friends of everyone. But the best companies serve their customers with a smile, with consideration for their needs, and with a commitment to develop professional relationships that are rewarding and can stand the inevitable stresses that occur when business starts to go bad. Comdex seemed to have zero commitment to its customers, and now the show is paying the ultimate price.
How Many Did You Say?
There were never 200,000 people there, of course. Friend-of-a-friend estimates have always told me total attendance peaked at somewhere around 60,000. But even that crowd was big enough to give the place a feel of a supremely healthy industry creating a new, improved global society empowered by humankind's marvelous digital machines and the code that made them run.
The 200,000 figure, though, remains stuck in my craw. Why did this apparent fiction need to be touted over and over? Why did mindless media reports repeat it without challenge? Why can't we humans tell the truth about such a simple fact as how many people showed up to the party?
Now that the party is over, it will be exceedingly difficult for anyone to tell the truth. Say you throw a major technology gig in Las Vegas, or San Francisco or New York, and 25,000 people show up. By this, I mean 25,000 people who should be there, who either buy, create, or report seriously on technology. Would your efforts be lauded? Probably not. Because as long as the false Holy Grail of 200K is held out there, anything less will be considered a disappointment and a sign that technology STILL HASN'T COME BACK.
I mourn today's announcement. I viewed Comdex as a talented child with bad parents. Despite its parents' attempts to make the event as unpleasant as possible over the years, you know, the show was an absolute killer. It was there at the dawn of the industry, it grew with the industry, it defined the industry. There were a lot of great times at Comdex over the years, and yes, a lot of business got transacted. It was the one time each year that you knew you would run into everyone you knew in the industry, exchange some small talk, some large talk, and see how they were doing. It was the place where you could see which companies were on fire and which were flaming out.
Hey, I got to meet Nadia Comaneci at this show. She brought "a perfect 10" into everyday vocabulary, and set a standard for perfection that many still strive to achieve, no matter what their endeavor.
Today's management team says not to worry, that the show will be back in 2005. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?
Bookmark Roger Strukhoff's blog at http://radio.weblogs.com/0135270
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