Big-Splash Trade Shows Sinking Fast
By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page E01
Comdex, the high-tech trade show that launched a thousand products, commanded the attendance of the giants of the industry and, at its height, attracted so many people that it overwhelmed the ability of even Las Vegas to accommodate it -- is no more.
Last month, the new owners of Comdex announced they were postponing the 2004 event in the hopes of retooling it for 2005. But many in the industry believe Comdex won't ever be revived. The reason: It simply no longer makes sense for either buyers or sellers to attend.
Some of that has to do with the particulars of this show and this industry. Comdex never really recovered from a disastrous 2001 event that came just weeks after 9/11 and in the midst of a severe industry slump. Nor did it help that the show has changed hands several times since it was sold for $800 million to the Japanese (who else?) by founder Sheldon Adelson, eventually ending up in bankruptcy court, where it was picked up for a song by a San Francisco investment firm. (Adelson, by the way, used his windfall to buy a hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip that he turned into the Venetian.)
Comdex also suffered from being what is known in the business as a "horizontal" show, taking in a wide range of services and products, from business software, chips and routers to personal computers, cell phones and video games. While this breadth naturally generated keynote speeches about the future of "convergence," in the here and now, buyers and sellers continued to prefer more focused "vertical" trade shows that were easier to understand and navigate and didn't require paying $59 a square foot for exhibition space and $250 for a hotel room. It also didn't help that, in a desperate attempt to stem declining attendance, Comdex opened its doors to consumers and gawkers, giving the event the feel of a Sunday flea market.
Aside from these particulars, however, there are also broader forces at work in the economy that challenge the industry trade show. (Full disclosure: A Washington Post Co. subsidiary owns FOSE, a government technology trade show.)
Consider, for example, the National Hardware Show that, for 25 years, was among the biggest gatherings at Chicago's giant McCormack Place. This show was an efficient way for tens of thousands of small retailers and wholesale suppliers to interact with thousands of large and small manufacturers, picking up on trends, trying out new products, placing orders, negotiating prices. It was also a way for exhibitors to build personal relationships that could sustain them even in years when they didn't have the best products or the best prices.
But how relevant is this, now that the neighborhood hardware store has been bought up or driven out of business? The remaining giants such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart now avoid the time and expense of sending armies of buyers to Chicago. They simply summon all companies that want to sell hammers, for example, to show up on the same day at their headquarters, where they sample the wares and play one against another in a day-long bidding war. In time, those that lose these contests disappear, while those that win get big enough that they, too, decide they can bypass the trade show, turning instead to the Internet and their own marketing events.
This doesn't mean the trade show is about to go the way of the fedora-wearing salesman with the two-toned shoes. Indeed, the latest statistics show that attendance and fees have rebounded in the past year and could soon surpass the highs of the boom years in the 1990s. And as Thomas Mobley, the general manager of the Washington Convention Center argues, for every Comdex, there is a large and still-growing trade show, such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a booming enterprise ably run by a trade association based in Arlington.
But my hunch -- and it is only that -- is that Comdex was no anomaly. With so many industries in the midst of consolidation, with distribution channels fragmenting and with so many other ways for people to communicate and interact effectively and efficiently, the heyday of the giant, industry-wide trade show may have passed.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company