For the first time in its 22-year history, Comdex, the tech orgy to end all tech orgies, will almost certainly be smaller than the previous year as a lackluster economy and the events of Sept. 11 tether people closer to home.
Jason Chudnofsky, president and CEO of Key3media Events, is forecasting about a 30 percent drop in attendance to between 180,000 and 190,000 when the show runs the week of Nov. 12 in Las Vegas.
"Its the perfect storm – terrorism and a poor economy," said Chudnofsky, still his usual ebullient self despite the double whammy. "We expect a 30 percent decrease across the board, but were going to keep moving ahead with those events and stay the course."
His current Comdex estimates, however, may be the best case. Registrations for all facets of Comdex, which are usually increasing at this time of year, came to a screeching halt Sept. 11 and have not come back, according sources close to Comdex. And the feeling is they may not rebound before the show.
Despite several requests for attendance figures at the recent NetWorld+Interop show in Atlanta and the Seybold San Francisco electronic publishing event in mid and late September, respectively, Key3media officials have not released them. However, Chudnofsky estimated about 40,000 attendees were stranded in Atlanta when all the airports closed for several days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In past years, N+I attendance exceeded 75,000.
"You really have the traffic of the people who were stuck there," he said.
The fear is twofold -- flying to Las Vegas and the threat of terrorism at the show. Chudnofsky tries to be reassuring on the latter. "Las Vegas has one of the strongest security systems in the world with gaming control to keep out bad elements," he said. "We have 130 countries represented at the show, 35 international pavilions and 100 representatives from China alone."
But Chudnofsky acknowledges the unprecedented fear of flying. Ten days after Sept. 11, flying from Boston to San Francisco, the same route as one of the hijacked planes, he sat next to a very nervous passenger in a plane that was one-third full. "Every time someone walked up the aisle, shed say, `Where do you think that person is from?"
Internal registration has not yet begun at Microsoft Corp., but the company expects to still send several hundred employees to man its 30,000-square-foot booth as well as additional displays around the show floor. "We see this as a very important event as the industry moves forward and gets back to business" said Microsoft spokeswoman Heidi Reys. Microsoft is routinely one of Comdexs biggest exhibitors, and its chairman, Bill Gates, along with other keynote speakers, is keeping his commitment.
Dell Computer Corp., which hasnt exhibited in years, is holding events at the show and so far doesnt expect the Sept. 11 events to affect its overall customer and supplier meetings.
"Some people feared all travel would be shut down, so a companywide missive went out," said Dell spokesman Tom Kehoe, adding that the missive focused mostly on cost containment, reiterating that employees should scrutinize travel needs closely.
Dell will sponsor a press event at the House of Blues in the Mandolay Bay, and Michael Dell will be there, according to Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton. Asked if Dell is flying to Las Vegas, Hilton said, "Im sure hes flying. Its a long haul from here [Round Rock, Texas]."
Some companies would just as soon avoid the topic of travel.
"People are continuing to conduct business, but as far as reluctance [to travel], thats something were not commenting on. Were not participating in those stories," said IBM spokesman Joe Stunkard. "Are folks traveling? Yes. How that has changed as a result [of Sept. 11], I dont know. I havent even asked."
The less said the better for trade show impresarios perhaps, but Key3media is tackling the topic head on. The Comdex Fall Web site makes several statements about Sept. 11.
"The mood is going to be set by us. There are no borders for IT, and if there was ever a time to make statement, it will be this year," said Chudnofsky.