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2002: The year of the tanking trade show

IT trade shows may seem like they're on the brink of extinction, but they're probably just on the brink of reality. The year 2002 was one of canceled shows, empty chairs, empty floor space and lame free stuff. But one analyst says 2003 will be brighter, with leaner, meaner and more targeted shows.

In some cities, 2002 will be remembered as the year without a Comdex.

Key3 Media Group Inc. canceled Comdex events in Chicago, Vancouver and Montreal this year and has already deleted Networld+Interop in Atlanta and Seybold Seminars in New York from its 2003 schedule. Many of the 2002 IT shows that did go on, Key3 or not Key3, were haunted by ghosts of conferences past -- back when travel budgets were big and vendors fought for floor space.

The culture of IT conferences -- the crowds, the gifts, the happy hours, the booth babes and the laser light shows -- still exists. It has grown dimmer, though, less giddy and more sober, with CEOs delivering humble keynotes and attendees being required to bring back something more substantial than a free T-shirt and a hangover.

Attendance at IT trade shows has dropped about 30% since 2000, with a 10% loss last year, according to Michael Hughes, associate publisher and director of research at the Los Angeles-based Tradeshow Week magazine. Hughes said that over the last 18 months, about 100 IT trade shows and conferences have folded or merged with other events.

However, the space for vendor- and technology-specific events, such as ones dedicated to data warehousing, storage and security, is growing in popularity, Hughes said. He predicts that the worst is over for the IT trade show industry in general and that sales and attendance figures will stabilize or slowly climb in 2003.

"As technology has splintered and has become even more specialized, there has been a need for very specialized niche events," Hughes said.

Fred Kost, vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based network security company nCircle, will remember 2002 as the year Networld+Interop in Atlanta disappointed him.

"Networld+Interop in 2000 was a phenomenal event, just tremendous amounts of money being spent," Kost said. "In May, at the N+I show, we saw huge parts of the floor cordoned off, huge spaces where chairs were folded up. It was a completely different experience."

In 2003, Kost said, nCircle will continue to participate in "security-targeted" events (sponsored by CSI and the SANS Institute). He said that nCircle got some good exposure at the annual Gartner Expo, but he would have to carefully weigh the cost of the conference versus the number of quality sales leads it generated before he returns.

Though attendance is the most obvious way to gauge how conferences change from one year to the next, there are often less tangible measurements. When SAP CEO and co-chairman Hasso Plattner appeared this year at the company's annual U.S. event in Orlando, Fla., the thundering American rock music was as loud as it had been in years past. It was the note Plattner sounded, however, that signaled the start of a different sort of SAP show.

Instead of touting SAP as king of the heap, Plattner opened with a reference to the merciless IT economy and committed the company to working well with others. Even the welcome gift of carabiners, those mountaineering clips that can also be used as key chains, were noticeably less extravagant than the handheld devices SAP handed out in 2001.

Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy used his keynote address at one of the Comdex 2002 events to acknowledge the top 10 signs that tech conferences were in trouble. "IBM Global Services now caters weddings and bar mitzvahs," McNealy offered. He also joked: "Your company asked you to bring back all the soap and shampoo from your hotel room."

A few IT conference planners have aimed to scale down their attendance figures as a way of attracting only a coveted group of decision makers.

"These people don't want to be part of a cattle call," said Gartner Inc. executive Michelle Whitlock, adding that Garter Expo attendees have requested increased access to specific technology vendors and experts. "We have resisted having a themed event, but we have had enhancements so that someone interested in BI can go to the BI marketplace."

TechTarget, an IT media company that owns and operates a family of Web sites, including this one, has an invitation-only conference strategy that targets IT decision makers. The conferences are free of charge to pre-qualified attendees. The company will grow its conference schedule in 2003 from five to 11 events. In 2002, about 3,000 IT professionals attended TechTarget conferences, including Storage Management, Storage Decisions and the Conference. In 2003, the number of delegates at each show will be capped at 500 to ensure quality, according to TechTarget executives.

Like a lot of IT professionals, Stephen Pace, a technical consultant for Kalido Ltd. in Houston, will search out data warehousing events in 2003.

"I like The Data Warehousing Institute event," Pace said. "One, they are specifically focused on data warehousing and business intelligence. Two, TDWI tries to keep the hype to a minimum. All the vendors have the same size booth, so there aren't any of those two-story giant movie booths from SAP, etc."

"I believe they do a pretty good job of it, although everyone has their biases," Pace said. "Occasionally -- albeit rarely -- I have seen some of their instructors push one type of technology or another."

Pace said that even in tough times, he has gotten his money's worth from IT conferences. "You get to take some classes, speak directly with experts, and network with others in your field," he said. "Perhaps they have already gone through what you are about to go through."


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