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Comdex: The Show that Ate Las Vegas Dies of Anorexia

Comdex: The Show that Ate Las Vegas Dies of Anorexia

  • Comdex Bites the Vegas Dust

    There won't be a Comdex this year.

    (Long pause for general chortling and rejoicing as shoemakers everywhere weep.)

    Industry ennui killed it.

    The current owners of the biggest money-spinner besides Microsoft ever spawned by the Computer Revolution claim they're "postponing" the thing to "reshape" it, which - according to the old VP of PR for the grand old Comdex, David Kaminer - is polite show talk for the show is over. "If you don't floor it," he said, "you 'postpone' it."

    The Las Vegas Conventional Center and environs are still expecting Comdex to pay for the space it reserved for November.

    It's hard to conceive of how much money changed hands and how much technology came to market and how many people made a living because Comdex existed.

    And Comdex existed because of the pre-PC foresight of a small-time show manager named Shelly Adelson, who in March of 1979 was inspired to create it by a start-up publication called Computer Systems News that was brought into existence for CMP Publications by a young, unseasoned, second-generation reporter named Maureen O'Gara.

    Starting in a small back ballroom of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that fall thanks to the support rendered by DEC's OEM unit run by Jake Jacobs, Comdex became, as the Wall Street Journal once called it, the "High Holy Days of High Tech," distinguished by the "miles of aisles" that inexorably enveloped the whole desert town until it took up a million square feet.

    It was, someone once calculated, "the largest non-religious gathering in America," the industry's great annual homecoming - and the people who came, armed with pens and a clinching handshake, were the decision makers.

    In its heyday, airlines flew because of it, convention centers were built because of it, hotels overflowed because of it and Las Vegas, originally a really cheap place to play, jacked its prices through the roof because of it.

    One year, conference director Peter Young lined up a guest speaker by the name of Bill Gates - a kid Shelly - who only learned of the booking later - dismissed as "that high school student" until Gates' picture suddenly started appearing on the covers of business magazines because his company just went public.

    Shelly always was lucky - that is if one considers luck the "residue of design and desire" like Branch Rickey, the "Mahatma" of baseball, did.

    Shelly sold Comdex at its peak to the Japanese-wannabe-big-time Softbank for $860 million. In April, 1995 that kind of sum was still real money. Shelly went on to buy the Sands Hotel, level it and build the Venetian among other hotels.

    Softbank, in turn, had its ups and downs, but Comdex still thrived - ultimately attracting 212,000 visitors and 2,500 exhibitors - until Softbank, which had also bought Ziff-Davis, found it necessary to focus on a core business and turned over Comdex to a Ziff-Davis spinout called the Key3Media Group, which had absolutely no knack for show business and turned the Golden Goose into a crude country pâté.

    The show lost its messianic appeal and its true audience, chipped away to a mere brand by bad management, the Internet, industry consolidation, changes in the distribution channel, rivals and Arab terrorism.

    By 2002, Key3Media was in hock up to its eyeballs and facing bankruptcy, its stock was worthless and had been drummed off the Big Board, half it board had quit and it was only able to meet its bank loans because of a windfall insurance settlement stemming from 9-11.

    Key3Media emerged from bankruptcy a year ago as MediaLive International Inc, which has been trying to keep Comdex alive as a B2B event. The last Comdex drew only 40,000 people and 550 exhibitors.

    MediaLive said Wednesday on the news of the show's cancellation that it's established a Comdex Advisory Board and has pressed some industry lights into putting their thinking caps on trying to dream up ways to salvage the show.

    It claimed that it could "still run a profitable Comdex this year," but "it does not benefit the industry to do so without broader support of the leading technology companies."

    MediaLive said it had commitments to join the advisory board from John Volkmann, VP, strategic communications, AMD; George Paolini, VP, general manager of developer tools, Borland Software; Mark Fredrickson, VP, corporate communications, EMC; Timothy Curran, CEO, Global Technology Distribution Council; Jeff Singsaas, director of events, Microsoft; Robert Shimp, VP, technology marketing, Oracle; and Peter Weedfald, senior VP, strategic marketing and new media, Samsung Electronics.

    Executives from Cisco, Dell and Intel have also agreed to join the board and invitations have been extended to other companies, MediaLive said.

    The next Comdex in Las Vegas, which they're thinking of turning into a user conclave, is scheduled for November 13-17, 2005.

  • More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

    Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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