Comdex attracts fewer visitors, more security

This was supposed to be Cindy Low’s first visit to Comdex. However, a combination of the economic slowdown and increased security fears helped convince the Singapore-based marketing manager for network equipment vendor Linksys Group Inc. to cancel her trip.

Officially known as Comdex Fall, the annual show is held each November in Las Vegas and is billed by organizers as one of the world’s largest – and most important – exhibitions of IT hardware and software. But a dramatic downturn in the fortunes of the IT industry over the past year and the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are expected to cause a steep drop in the number of visitors to this year’s show.

Due to the downturn in IT, show organizers are looking at a 25 per cent drop in attendance this year, according to Amy Groden, a spokeswoman for Key3Media Events Inc., in an e-mail response to written questions. With 150,000 visitors expected by Key3Media to attend the show this year, that amounts to 50,000 fewer attendees than last year.

Linksys’ Low is just one example of the many thousands of attendees that event organizer Key3Media expects to cancel their Comdex plans this year. Low’s decision to cancel a planned trip to Comdex was made as a result of budget cuts and security fears that caused many of the Asian journalists she had hoped to meet with to scrap plans to visit the show. “A lot of them are reconsidering or haven’t decided yet if they are going,” Low said.

Linksys expects to see slightly fewer Asian customers attend Comdex this year, although some of its regional customers are going, Low said. “A lot of them are still keen to see the latest products,” she said.

Historically, a visit to Comdex has been a must for many vendors, end users and journalists. But with the industry facing a global recession, exhibitors are worried about attendance levels this year. “The size of the show will be the same (as last year), but we are unsure what the attendance will be like,” said Donya Ekstrand, a spokeswoman for Ericsson Business Innovation AB.

Hard economic times aren’t just keeping users and media away from the show. Weighed down by lackluster financial results, some vendors, such as Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV’s Philips Components division and NEC Corp., have been forced to reduce their presence at Comdex. “We have scaled back our presence because of our reduced financial performance,” said Jeremy Cohen, a Philips Components spokesman.

When companies adjust plans because of budget concerns, typically they scale back their programs, as opposed to dropping out completely, according to Groden. Key3Media couldn’t provide a specific figure for the number of companies that had cancelled or scaled back their plans to attend Comdex, saying the exact number is too difficult to track.

However, both domestic (U.S.) and international exhibitors are scaling back marketing activities due to the economy and, in some cases, because some of these companies have gone out of business, Groden said, estimating that this year’s show will attract more than 2,000 exhibitors.

Despite the harsh economic environment and lingering security fears, many companies are planning on business as usual at Comdex.

All eight of the keynote speakers – Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft Corp.; John Chambers, Cisco Systems Inc.’s president and chief executive officer (CEO); Kunitake Ando, president and chief operating officer (COO) at Sony Corp.; Jorma Ollila, Nokia Corp.’s chairman and CEO; Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle Corp.; Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS); Jeff Hawkins, founder, chairman and chief product officer of Handspring Inc.; and Don Listwin, president and CEO of Openwave Systems Inc. – scheduled for Comdex have re-confirmed their attendance since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a Key3Media statement.

Major exhibitors have also re-confirmed their Comdex plans in the aftermath of the attacks, including Nortel Networks Corp, CMC Magnetics Corp., Olympus America Inc. and AT&T Corp., the statement said.

For some exhibitors, increased security fears sparked by Sept. 11 have helped open new markets. Web conference software maker SpartaCom Inc. plans to expand its Comdex presence this year, hoping to capitalize on an expected increase in demand for its products in light of a drop in corporate air travel after Sept. 11. “Not only are we going to be at Comdex next month, our presence will be significantly bigger this year compared to last year,” said Scott Moule, chief operating officer for SpartaCom.

But employees of Tucson, Arizona-based SpartaCom that will be attending Comdex may not be flying to the Las Vegas event. “Comdex is very close to us, we can drive there,” Moule said. “We are very concerned (about the possibility of further terrorist attacks after Sept. 11) and like everyone else, we have to be aware of the situation, but we also have to maintain a strong presence in the market.”

For visitors and exhibitors that do make the trip to Las Vegas this year, they can expect to see increased security as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. Key3Media is taking extra security precautions for Comdex-related events, working with event venues and local authorities to make sure that appropriate security measures are taken for the event, Groden said. The company has also enlisted the services of a private security firm to help organize security measures.

Comdex organizers have responded to travel-related fears by exploring the possibility of offering buses to ferry attendees who are worried about flying to Comdex, said Rick Moore, head of communications for Key3Media. The company has buses lined up to transport attendees from cities like San Diego; Irvine, California; San Jose, California; San Francisco; and Phoenix, Arizona, but “we haven’t gotten a ton of interest so far,” Moore said.

Indeed some companies, like Sony, which plans to send up to 200 of its staff from Japan to Comdex, have not allowed security fears to deter executives from traveling to Comdex via air. “Plans have not been finalized but at present Sony has made no real considerations regarding the (security) situation in the U.S. Obviously, if something happens between now and Comdex it might have a major effect,” according to Merran Wrigley, a Sony spokeswoman.

(Martyn Williams in Tokyo, Joris Evers in Amsterdam, Elizabeth Heichler in Boston, Laura Rohde in London, and Douglas F. Gray in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

For more information on Comdex Fall, visit