Whither Comdex?

Comdex Fall 2002 is over, and the speculation now is about whether there will be a Comdex Fall 2003. Many people have expressed the opinion that Comdex has run its course, that everything has to come to an end. But predictions based on the behavior of Comdex's current owners, or on their existential belief in the natural lifespan of a corporate entity, ignore the possibility that a creative approach could save the Comdex franchise and make it work in the new landscape of the technology industry.

If Comdex dies, it will be because of the greed of its promoters. But if someone pays good money to take over the show and continues to run it like Adelson/ZD/Key3Media did, they have no one but themselves to blame when it fails, unless they've been asleep since March, 2000.

The industry has changed, and Comdex has to change too. I think they can come back from 35,000, but the only way they'll succeed is if they completely change the show. I'd guess that someone walking through a time warp from Comdex 1999 to Comdex 2005 would have no idea where they were, unless they recognized the snack bar. The franchise still has value, both in name recognition and in the very favorable long-term contracts they signed with the LVCC, which I believe still have a few years to run.

I was at the National Computer Conference in 1979, '80 and '81. It was the biggest technology trade show in the world. In 1980 a whole bunch of exhibitors had to set up their booths at a five degree angle to the vertical - the show had so many unanticipated exhibitors that they had to use the parking garage of the Disneyland Hotel as overflow exhibit space. It was like holding a trade show in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I saw NCC lose out to Comdex and die a quick death. I think it took two years from peak to close. But Comdex 2003 is not NCC 1982, because no competing show is waiting to suck away their audience (CES might, but that show has a different flavor and I really think it serves a different audience). Comdex also has the advantage that they can cut their exhibitor fees by probably 75% and still make money, if they anticipate lower attendance and scale their costs back accordingly. They have to organize as if it's a completely new show, even while calling it Comdex, so they can get the advantage of both reinvention and tradition.

The Comdex franchise should also have value online. Last year I was able to get a tremendous amount of information, including full-length streaming videos of all the keynotes, from comdex.com. They've clamped down a bit this year, but there was still a great deal out there. With Comdex's name recognition and access to experts, a new owner ought to be able to create a valuable Web portal into technology that mirrors the best parts of Comdex. Online panel discussions and technology presentations, special-interest mailing lists, a central distribution point for press releases, news reports, analyst columns - an online Comdex offered year-round, and with a subset of information offered free, ought to attract subscribers and rebuild the brand.

Comdex has one other thing going for it. I think the press and the analyst community is well aware of the intangible value that will be lost if Comdex tanks. Nobody wants to support the venality of current and past owners, but I think new owners could get significant help from the industry press if they showed a real commitment to rebuilding the show in a sustainable way. Nobody stands to lose more from the death of Comdex than industry reporters and analysts, who can get six months worth of networking out of a week in Vegas, and any sane owner will leverage that relationship and get the press to help build interest in a revived show among the wider community, if only in their own self-interest.

Cheap booths, lots of PR, an online presence, and one to three lean years. That's my formula for reviving Comdex, and I think it'll work.

©2002 Rich Stillman