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November 17th, 2002:

RIP, Comdex?

The long running granddaddy-of-them-all technology show Comdex is on the skids after a couple of bad years:

But at the 23rd annual show, which starts Monday, the crowds will be smaller, the exhibit area more compact and the mood subdued. Comdex, like the rest of the high-tech industry, is sputtering.

“Comdex is not bigger than the industry it serves,” said Fredric Rosen, chief executive of Key3Media Group, Comdex’s organizer. “We didn’t make the economy. We only reflect it.”

Rosen expects visitors this year to stay steady with the 125,000 who attended in 2001 — an abysmal year because of the terrorist attacks, anthrax scare and sinking economy.

But the amount of exhibit space this year is expected to shrink, after dropping from 1.2 million square feet in 2000 to 805,706 square feet sold in 2001. Only 1,000 or so exhibitors are expected this year, down from 1,685 in 2001 and 2,337 in 2000.

Reports of Comdex’s demise are nearly as predictable as falling leaves in autumn. During the high-tech boom, pundits said the show was too big and unfocused to maintain its clout.

Now, however, Key3Media is itself struggling with layoffs, losses and a stock price hovering around 2 cents per share. Several of its regional shows have been canceled.

In its third-quarter financial results released Thursday, the company said there is “substantial risk” it would be unable to make interest payments due Dec. 16 and may have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

A decision will be made after the fall show, the company said.

I attended Comdex in 1991, back when I was employed at a small software shop. We really had no business being there, since we were in a niche market and couldn’t come close to justifying the cost of travel and booth rental, but I’m glad I had the chance to go. Comdex really does take over Las Vegas for a week. You need the full week just to walk past all the booths.

Probably the most interesting experience I had at Comdex was a cab ride in which the cabbie complained that he wasn’t making good money at Comdex any more because no one wanted to go to the brothels. Prostitution is not legal in Clark County – the closest legal brothels are about an hour’s drive away. All of them offer package deals with Las Vegas cabbies – for a fixed fee, you get a roundtrip cab ride and a session with one of the working girls. My driver (who was taking me to the airport, in case you’re wondering) lamented that since the advent of AIDS, none of the conventioneers were taking those excursions. The moral of this story is that at any given point in the lifecycle of an institution, you can always find someone who thinks that it isn’t what it used to be.

The prognosis for Comdex isn’t good. Even when the economy recovers, it faces tough competition from smaller shows that focus on specific technologies. I don’t expect Condex to die in the near future, but I’ll predict that if Key3Media goes under it will morph into something else under whoever buys up the corpse.