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Deputy News Editor

Trade shows gird for battle in Vegas

Nov 12, 20035 mins
Enterprise Applications

When the Comdex trade show opens in Las Vegas next week a competitor will be a short cab ride away. Jupitermedia, a research and events company, is launching a rival show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, and it’s making no secret of its ambition: to run Comdex out of town.

Jupitermedia announced plans for its show in February, taking advantage of financial uncertainty surrounding Comdex organizer Key3Media Group, which had filed for bankruptcy protection the same day. While Comdex faced criticism for becoming a sprawling, unfocused event that didn’t meet the needs of buyers and sellers, Jupitermedia promised a more intimate gathering focused specifically on enterprise IT.

On the eve of its show, called Computer Digital Expo (cdXpo), it has signed up around 50 exhibitors and a speaker roster that includes Peter Blackmore, head of HP’s server group, and Darl McBride, chief executive of The SCO Group. It expects to attract about 6,000 visitors to the event. That would be only a tenth of the crowd Comdex hopes to draw, but still a healthy start for a show in its first year, according to Alan Meckler, Jupitermedia’s chairman and chief executive.

“We’ve created a show which we think addresses all the ills of Comdex. People want smaller, more focused events,” he said.

Some exhibitors apparently agree. The Canadian government, which has been a Comdex regular in the past, will this year set up its pavilion at cdXpo instead, to showcase about 20 Canadian IT vendors. It declined to discuss its reasons for switching. IBM, BEA Systems and SAP America will also be at cdXpo. Some companies, like IBM, will have a presence at both shows.

Pointing to Comdex’s falling attendance — the show expects about 50,000 visitors this year, down from 125,000 last year — Meckler predicted its rapid demise. “When trade shows start to shrink, and shrink rapidly, they don’t come back, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here,” he said.

Despite his bluster, Comdex is by no means beaten. Key3Media emerged from bankruptcy in June, changed its name to MediaLive International and announced its own plans for a smaller, more focused event for enterprise IT users. It cut the number of exhibitors by a half from a year ago and is being selective about attendees for the first time, to ensure a better class of visitor.

It also moved its headquarters, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to be closer to the heart of the IT industry, and installed a new management team that includes former members of CMP Media, an experienced media and events company. Its usual lineup of speakers will be there, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Sun’s Scott McNealy and Siebel Systems’ Tom Siebel. Dell, which has been absent from the show for six years, has returned.

In short, Comdex has seen the error of its ways and has rebuilt itself as a new type of show, said Eric Faurot, the show’s vice president and general manager.

“This is year one of the new Comdex. It’s back to basics — understanding how to connect the right buyers with the right vendors. We will only allow companies on the show floor that have products for the IT marketplace. You won’t see any car companies or massage chairs,” he said.

Comdex became wrapped up in the growth frenzy that marked the dot-com era, he said, when growth took precedence over a viable business model. When the market collapsed, “the rules of the game changed for everybody. Just as IT vendors are now having to prove their value to customers, so too must trade shows,” Faurot said.

With that in mind, MediaLive has joined with trade show organizer CeBIT USA, International Data Group, CMP Media and other industry players to come up with a way of measuring attendance at shows accurately. The consortium of companies will hold its first meeting at Comdex next week.

Faurot welcomed the challenge from Jupitermedia and claimed to be unperturbed.

“The best thing is that it validates the need for an industry event, and it allows us to be compared to something besides our past,” he said.

His opponent has some pedigree. Meckler’s resume includes launching the Internet World trade show in 1993, which he grew to about 70,000 attendees before selling it to Penton Media in 1998, along with a few media properties, for $274 million. Today his company runs several trade shows focused on specific industry segments. They include WiFi Planet, which has been growing quickly.

“I’m looking forward to next week,” he said Thursday. “It’s exciting for me as a businessman.”

Some analysts said it’s too early to know how the rivalry between the two shows will play out. Meckler and Faurot seemed to agree on one thing, however: The industry won’t support two concurrent trade shows in the same town for very long.

“I think right now it’s up for grabs. It’s too early to say with any certainty what’s going to happen,” said Andy Olsen, a trade show consultant with Team International Group in Gainesville, Fla., who attended the first Comdex show almost a quarter-century ago.

Comdex remains one of the best known industry trade shows in the world, while some people contacted for this story said they had never heard of cdXpo. On the other hand, a Computerworld poll last month showed that many IT executives were unaware of Comdex’s makeover attempt, and still consider it too big and glitzy to be worth their time.

Rob Enderle, a principal analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose, said the whole idea of trade shows is being called into question. With higher-quality video coming to the Internet, buyers may no longer feel the need to attend events in person to find out what’s on offer, he said.

Meanwhile, Faurot and Meckler are gearing up for an important week.

“I think that only afterwards, when you can sit back and take a look at what actually happened, will we really know which one was successful,” Olsen said.