Has Comdex lost its Midas touch?

Nov 26, 2002 7:50 AM

   The strippers were here, but the numbers weren’t. And that was Las Vegas casinos’ loss last week.

   Comdex, the annual tech tradeshow that historically jacks up room rates to $400 a night and more, was a shell of its former self this year. Rooms at major Strip resorts were going for $100 or less. Parking was plentiful — even in front of the convention center — and those omnipresent promotional blimps were grounded.

   “The tech wreck has hit town,’’ moaned one gamer. “It was like the worst of both worlds — bargain-basement conventioneers, and not many of them.’’

   The five-day show drew 100,000 attendees — far off the 200,000-plus figure routinely posted during the roaring ’90s. Convention officials estimate that this year’s falloff cost the city and its hotels $65 million in non-gaming revenue.

   “This is uncharted territory,’’ said Comdex organizer Kim Myhre. “I haven't seen such a wacky year, with (tech) doldrums and Sept. 11.’’

   Indeed. Things have gotten so bad that Key3Media Group, Comdex’s producer, warned it might not be able to make debt payments and may have to file for bankruptcy protection.

   In addition to steadily dwindling attendance numbers, dot-com companies were also staying away in droves. Exhibitors fell to 1,000 this year, down from 1,685 in 2001 and 2,337 in 2000.

   Hard times were evident as EDS, a tech heavy hitter, downsized its floor presence to two kiosks. In previous years, the firm rented an entire hanger and brought in big-name performers such as Bare Naked Ladies to wow the crowds.

   EDS exec Dick Brown tried to put a happy face on this year’s show, noting, “The bystanders aren’t here. The people who are here to do business are here.’’

   Comdex conventioneers have never been big bettors. So the impact on casino action was minimal, floormen told GamingToday.

   But the anemic crowds dragged down business across the board, with struggling convention center vendors peddling cappuccino for less than $2 a cup.

   The usually robust party scene was a flop, too — with one exception. 

   “There were fewer parties and smaller ones,’’ said Judy Cushman, who puts together an annual party list and also publishes tech newsletter The Cushman Report.

   Strippers and porn stars were in plentiful supply, though.

   The Tropicana and several other major resorts hauled in more dancers and staged extra raunchy shows to entertain uptight techies looking to cut loose.

   Off-Strip joints such as Jaguars and Cheetah’s were also enjoying brisk business through Friday.

   Comdex is just one of many Las Vegas trade shows hammered by the soft economy and terrorist attacks. About 250 meetings and conventions were canceled in the past two months. Other shows, such as MAGIC, the giant men’s apparel convention, are cinching their belts.

   In an effort to keep hotel rooms filled, Strip resorts have slashed seasonal rates by 30 and 40 percent. But midweek occupancies are still down 11 percent.

   Resorts, meantime, are eating the higher costs of beefing up security. That means more guards, security sweeps and searches of bags and packages. Metal detectors are also being considered.

   Better luck next year?