Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Flashback to 2004- will history repeat itself?

Excellent article by Neil Taylor from June 2004 published in the South China Morning Post. It explains why Comdex failed, which was the largest IT exhibition in North America at the time. 11 years later it could be exactly the same reasons why large specialist exhibitions like IBC either fail catastrophically or fade rather fast as the economy bites broadcast very hard.
Last week marked one of those historical moments by which you can mark technology's timeline. It was the closure, probably for good, of the annual Comdex Fall technology show in Las Vegas. If Samuel Johnson had been born 300 years later, he might have said that the man who is tired of Las Vegas is tired of losing. And Comdex organiser MediaLive is looking like someone who has just spent 24 hours on a baccarat table. Since 1979, Comdex has been the big ticket event on the technology calendar. Although a fraction of the size of Germany's giant CeBit, Comdex got the kudos, thanks to its handy location close to Silicon Valley and smack in the heart of the city of sin.
Many of the most significant products were unveiled there, from Dos 2.0 to Windows and Lotus 1-2-3. We saw the earliest outings of speech and handwriting recognition, wearable, virtual and even smellable computing there. Best of all (for many) were the parties, the freebies and the chance to hang out on the Strip and talk about gadgets - all on company expense. By the late 90s, more than 200,000 geeks turned up every autumn.

So what went wrong?

According to Robert Priest-Heck, chief executive of MediaLive, the closure is for our own good. 'While we could still run a profitable Comdex this year, it does not benefit the industry to do so without broader support of the leading technology companies,' he said in a statement. But most of us had long since stopped going, anyway. By last year, only 45,000 people turned up to visit the 500 exhibitors (also down by three quarters). By the time it reached its zenith in 2000, Comdex was an uncontrollable, sprawling mess.

Germany's CeBit has its own enormous exhibition site, where each technology has its own hall, all within easy walking distance. At Comdex, you had to travel between several hotels to see everything. Travel meant endless queues for buses or costly taxis, the hotels were fully booked and overpriced, and the food was best forgotten. With the crowds came the freeloaders. Comdex became known for the volume of free junk available to anyone willing to queue. Gradually, many of the biggest brands in the industry decided the show was not worth the time, competition and high costs. One by one, IBM, Dell, Apple, Sony, Hewlett-Packard and many other stalwarts dropped out, although some (such as HP) held events in nearby hotels to capture the passing trade.

Another Comdex killer was the treatment of Asian firms. For years, the Silicon Valley's technology royalty dominated the main halls at the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Asian firms were relegated to the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, a bus ride away from the main events. Some were happy to be spared the noise and freeloaders, but most felt they were getting a poor deal. In 2000, I met a very frustrated Mike Rowse, head of InvestHK at the Hong Kong Pavilion. Mr Rowse was as forthright as ever when he explained why they would not be back the next year. The event, in his opinion, was 'bullshit'.

He was right.

If ever Comdex should have been cancelled, it was in 2001. Coming two months after the terror attacks of September 11, exhibitor and attendee numbers plummeted. There were so few exhibitors left, the Sands was abandoned - along with a number of Asian firms that had hired sales rooms in the neighbouring Venetian. Only seven firms took stands in the Hong Kong pavilion. Former organisers Key3Media admitted defeat and opened the doors to the Vegas public. Now the lines of geeks taking a week off work to boost their T-shirt collections were boosted by bored tourists and unemployed Vegas youths, all lining up for their free food, software, toys, puzzles, inflatable doodads, pens, key rings, hats and even trousers.

Meanwhile, visitors were searched whenever they entered a hall, and some overseas exhibitors found their equipment irretrievably stuck in US customs. To make matters worse, Key3Media tried to turn Comdex into a 7-11 of technology shows, with one on every corner, from Chicago to Atlanta to Sydney to Shanghai. Today, the only shows left are in Brazil, South Korea, Scandinavia, Saudi Arabia and Greece, with a promise, unlikely to be fulfilled, of a return to Las Vegas next year.
But the technology world has changed and Silicon Valley is no longer its sole focus. While CeBit still continues, most companies now prefer to focus on their specific markets. So in place of Comdex, we now have CES for consumer electronics, Computex for the PC industry, E3 for gamers, Networld for networkers, CTIA for wireless and the ITU and 3GSM shows for telecoms.

So who needs Comdex?

To people who say this could never happen, I simply refer them to the show that started the RAI exhibition centre in the first place, the RAI Autoshow. It was decided in November last year that the annual auto show in April 2013 will not go ahead. Car sales in January 2013 dropped by 30 percent compared to last year. So clearly they made the right decision.

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