Dan McLean: Comdex Canada trade show suffers yet another blow

It was only a matter of time. Comdex Canada in Toronto, once the biggest and best of all trade IT shows to annually pass through this country, will not happen this year.

An event, which at the high of its status attracted upwards of 80,000-plus to the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre and was a summer staple in the city – like Caribana, the Jazz Festival and the Canadian National Exhibition – was recently announced to have been “postponed” from its September date and will instead run in March 2004, say promoters. The September date was actually a later start pushed forward from a traditional July timeframe.

According to event organizers MediaLive International Inc., postponement comes due to “a softening Canadian national economy, a steep drop in IT spending, and lingering fears over the SARS outbreak (that in all) has contributed to an IT buyer community that is in a less-than-optimal position to evaluate and make critical technology purchase decisions at an event in late 2003.”

The organizers might just as well have been frank and reported that the downward slide of Comdex finally, after years of struggling, hit rock bottom and nobody – particularly exhibitors – seems to care anymore about massive trade shows.

The writing has been on the wall for a number of years. To describe Comdex in Canada as tough sell to both sponsors and attendees for at least the past three years would be an understatement. The show has, since about 1998, been on a breakneck freefall in both attendance and participants. In 1996, Comdex boasted 500 exhibitors. Barely two years later, less than 400 took part.

The show took a huge credibility hit that year as two of the biggest names in the industry – IBM and Hewlett Packard – decided to opt out. That began a mass exodus of exhibitors that typically accounted for the largest and often most meaningful demonstrations of products and services, at least to the large corporate business buyer. Left were a core of smaller or niche IT product companies more in line with the interests of a newer crowd that more typically walked through the halls of the trade centre, namely, students and home users.

Some of these remaining exhibitors did display some interesting wares and technologies, but all too many others were simply looking to sell the kind of commodity equipment that might otherwise be ordered through a catalogue and were more suited to your typical mom-and-pop operations. From the perspective of the large enterprise buyer, Comdex Canada had become meaningless.

Hopes were that this year would represent a rebirth, as MediaLive vowed to pull the show back to its roots by again reaching out to the corporate buyer. Certainly, it would have been refreshing in 2003 to attend a new and improved Comdex Canada show that learned from previous mistakes.

So, for example, no more market-shilling keynotes and a much greater glimpse of technology innovation that would whet the palates of the enterprise buyer. Everyone would enjoy the opportunity to hear real industry movers and shakers with meaningful business and IT strategic insight, rather than the parlay of shameless selling seminars featuring a host of product-marketing managers pitching their wares.

Such was to be expected in the past, since event organizers sought presenters willing to offer up their time and insight for no compensation. Little wonder that it was typically representatives of IT product makers seeking captive audiences to indoctrinate potential buyers that represented the vast majority of “speakers.”

During the last few years, even vendors were increasingly reluctant to make their pitches to an audience of retail buyers who might be willing to listen, but would certainly never purchase what these enterprise IT equipment and software makers were selling.

Nevertheless, Comdex, even during the recent difficult years, represented that one time of year when you’d most likely have the opportunity to, in one city at one time, touch base and talk to the best and brightest of Canada’s and North America’s IT industry.

If you were the right kind of customer or perceived market influencer, it’s likely you would have received an exclusive invite to a more intimate and focused hotel hospitality suite or a Skybox at a Toronto Blue Jay baseball game during Comdex Canada.

In truth, Comdex Canada was never really the place to see much that was leading-edge. You’d have needed to go to Comdex’s Las Vegas or Atlanta shows to get a real glimpse of the sexy stuff – both figuratively and literally. But Comdex Canada was that one time of year in Canada to get reconnected to the people you probably hadn’t seen or spoken to since the previous year’s Comdex.

Comdex Canada was at one time a whole lot of fun for customers, vendors and resellers, and a “happening” event eagerly anticipated by IT practitioners. Summer in Toronto really isn’t the same without Comdex Canada, and with the cancellation of this year’s show, maybe it’s just the way things were meant to be.