The question began whipping around my brain over a week before arriving here for the 22nd annual Comdex computer trade show. Key3Media, the management company behind the expo, warned of strict security: No bags could be brought in (except by exhibitors and the media), and laptop computers could be inspected and powered on at the request of show officials.
As a result, my trusty notebook computer stayed locked away, and I soldiered on at the show with a Pocket PC-based hand-held, and a foldout keyboard. They’re easier to carry. Those items, however, plus cell phones, keys and watches, would have to be removed before show-goers passed through a metal detector and faced a “sniff test” from bomb-sniffing dogs imported for the occasion. Cabs pulling up to the exposition site were being checked with mirrors to see if bombs were mounted on the undercarriage. Armed guards blocked access to the press room outside of approved hours.
Welcome to “Stalag Comdex.”
Thanks to a computer industry battered by the collapse of the dot-coms, a faltering U.S. economy and, of course, the tragic events of September 11, Comdex, which annually draws perhaps 250,000 people to this desert city, may have captured as few as 40,000 to 50,000 souls this year. Official numbers depending on who is officiating range from 70,000 to 100,000. The lower counts come from Nevadans who work in the hospitality industry and have seen convention crowds come and go over several years, thus having a good sense of matters. The local ABC-TV affiliate broadcast a report stating that 200 cabs had been pulled off the streets because of lack of demand, this in a city where Comdex usually means taxi gridlock.
While some booths on the show floor are crowded as usual buyers flocked to Microsoft Corp., Sony and other industry leaders other areas seem sparsely populated. The show, of course, is also scaled down. Where exhibits used to spill out of the Las Vegas Convention Center and into the Sands Expo Center, the latter facility, now part of the super-luxurious Venetian hotel complex, is shuttered and dark this week. And at a show where once outrageous performances like “booth bunnies” and can-you-top-this attention grabbers once held sway; the overall mood is more somber and serious. No balloons, blimps or other flying billboards hovered over the convention center this year; the number of rolling advertisements on city streets is down perhaps 80 percent or more.
Much of this can be attributed to the double whammy of an economic hiccup and the terrorist attacks. But I also got the sense that it was show organizers and perhaps Las Vegas officials themselves who wanted a milder, tamer Comdex. One resident commented that, after all, seven of the persons believed to have been in the September 11 hijacking brigade had made several visits to Las Vegas in which the attacks may have been planned. City officials may therefore be more skittish here than elsewhere, with good reason.
The net effect of all the heightened security, however, is to drive people away from what is supposed to be a trade show, after all. The whole reason to have a Comdex or any other such event is to bring buyers and sellers of technology together in a friendly, amiable setting. If the buyers are standing outside in long lines waiting to get in, or if various restrictions make it difficult or impossible for show visitors to get their mission here accomplished, then there has to be a dampening effect on business as a result.
Some industry insiders insist that all the new restrictions have done is keep the “tire kickers” away while the serious buyers still attend. Maybe so, but today’s tire kicker is tomorrow’s buyer. A show that does not provide easy access for visitors thus risks creating an environment that is not inviting or useful.
No one wants to minimize the very real security challenges facing America and the world in the wake of September 11. By the same token, the overbearing emphasis that turned an annual geek-fest into an armed camp may do more to harm the industry it serves than to revive that industry’s flagging fortunes.
Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer’s Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark on www.adrenaline-radio.com every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., EST.