Posted by: kevinliebl | December 29, 2009

Does anyone remember Comdex?

Comdex Trade ShowFor those of us who work in high-tech, Comdex (also known as “Geek Week”) was the largest trade show in the industry.  It was arguably the largest trade show in the world at its peak.  The name stood for “Computer Dealer Exhibition” and it was held in Las Vegas from 1979 to 2003.  Originally, it was a very focused show that catered to computer manufacturers, dealers, resellers and consultants.  It was the main place to launch products, announce business deals, meet with partners, press, analysts and most importantly – throw parties.  Even though it was tagged “Geek Week”, the parties were legendary.  Large companies spared no expense in entertaining their customers and partners.

Why was it so successful?  Marketing 101 – there was a need.  Companies needed a platform to promote their new products to the press and analysts.  They needed a way to meet with 20 or 30 partners in one week rather than making 20 or 30 business trips.  They needed a way to show their products to prospects – at its peak Comdex had over 250,000 attendees.  Companies needed a place to celebrate – Comdex was it.

So, why did it falter and fail?  There are many theories about the fall of Comdex.  Some point to a dilution of focus.  I have to admit, being a Comdex veteran, I realized they lost their focus when Mercedes had a 50’ x 50’ booth.  Why would a luxury automaker have a reason to be at a Computer Dealer Exhibition?  This was clearly a tipping point for the show.  Some people believe it was the greed of the show.  It became exceptionally expensive to attend Comdex.  The powers of supply and demand came into effect and the show management felt they could charge a premium.  Other smaller, more focused shows became more cost-effective and returned higher return-on-investment for the vendors.  Others feel it was Las Vegas itself who made it difficult to continue the show.  The fact was, 250,000 people were filling the hotel rooms, but they were not gambling.  Las Vegas makes money when people gamble, and Geek Week proved to be a slow week in Vegas.

In my opinion, I point to the fact that the market need went away.  Launching products at Comdex became ineffective because everyone in the industry was issuing press releases the same week.  Companies started avoiding press/analyst meetings during Comdex because of the noise level.  The ability to meet partners became ineffective because by the end of the week, you couldn’t remember who you met with.  Finally, the Internet eliminated the need to show your products to prospects.  The fall of Comdex and the decline of trade shows in general correlates directly with the increase of company websites.  During its peak, it was one of the few ways for prospects to gather data about a company and it’s products/services.  Today, you get the same effect by visiting a website.

Trade shows and conferences are struggling across the board because the need to meet face-to-face is becoming less of an issue.  Websites, webcasts, video conferencing and other virtual tools are meeting this requirement.  Comdex is now a distant memory and many other trade shows are disappearing as well.  What is your opinion?  Is there a place for trade shows, or have they become obsolete?  Did you attend Comdex?  Please share your favorite Comdex story.

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Responses

  1. I don’t really have a favorite Comdex story, although most them stem from annual meetings at my (big computer) company during which we swore not to participate, but inevitably did. Comdex is a dead dinosaur, but trade shows such as CES and 3GPP (mobile) are successors and attracting huge audiences. In fact, wireless mobile technology with all the related hardware, applications and content, has managed to take the place of Comdex in budgets for companies involved in this stuff. I personally hate trade shows, and view them, as I did Comdex, as a form of legal extortion. I admit that having meetings with customers during these events can be a good thing, but the amount of effort and expense that goes into booth design, travel, etc., is usually hideous, distracting and unnecessary. To your point, the blizzard of press releases is so dilutive as to render any news invisible. I agree that today there are other ways of communicating that are more efficient and effective.

  2. Trade shows are still a necessity. It is like going to a State Fair. Virtual experiences are not always fun. The difference is they may become more localized and smaller. More specific. The option to use technology to “be” somewhere instead of “go” somewhere is the big question since virtual experiences cut costs.

    What is the trade fair or convention offering? What will I discover there that even if I found it on the web, I would still appreciate in a more physical setting? Kind of like attending a Hot Pepper Trade show/Convention or the now ever popular Comic/Manga Convention in July/August. So niche trade shows and conventions that will come to our area will become the norm and not the large ones that we must go to (unless it is realy good).

  3. I attended in 89ish as an IBMer. Me and my pals partied like rockstars. Great bonding experience. Oh yeah, and we saw some cool gadgets too.

    On a more serious note, didn’t CES cut into Comdex?

    Also, tradeshows are about building relationships. If you properly plan your attack, you can have meetings pre-arranged and accomplish much. Also, bring the family.

  4. Eric,

    Agreed. The rock star parties did create a bonding experience, although not the environment I would
    “bring the family” to .

    Yes, CES certainly replaced COMDEX in many ways. CES continues to do very well. However, I am always amazed how vendors complain that they don’t see the ROI, but feel they need to be there due to the negative message pulling out would create. Many people view trades shows as an “industry tax”.

    Bottom line – there is value, but it is hard to quantify and correlate to a concrete return.

    Thanks for the comment.

    – Kevin

  5. From a PR perspective, I have always felt that shows like Comdex, Interop and CES were/are actually the least efficient strategy for promoting products to media (and the consumer), unless you are an absolute A-list player like Apple or Google with products already generating buzz. Media simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to consume that much content over a few days; most press releases get lost in the din and no one wants to lug around 50 pounds of press kits and collateral. You don’t want to be a small fish in a big pond, which is why budgets for Comdex (and now CES) would be better spent promoting products when you’re not fighting for attention amid thousands of other “big” news announcements. If it’s really that big, you’ll get plenty of attention at the time of your choosing. In this 24/7 social media world, timing of your news is not as important as the value of the message and who delivers it. So if you really don’t have a killer new product, spend your marketing budget on branding and visibility strategies, not square footage at a show booth.

  6. I attended a couple of times in ATLANTA, and finally in Las Vegas. I remember going to a stand that was really crowded, it was Novell. They were just starting out. I became one of a handful of CNE’s in FL, and the 2nd Certified Dealer. I also remember in 1971 going to Dallas to learn DOS1.0!!!


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