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PC Expo's Diminishing Returns

By Stephen H. Wildstrom PC Expo sure isn't what it used to be, and maybe other high-tech trade shows will never be the same either. CMP Media LLC, which owns the industry's 20-year-old summer gathering in New York, renamed it TechXNY/PC Expo last year in an effort to broaden its appeal to an audience that no longer regarded PCs as hip. It hasn't helped, and the problems appear to go beyond the industry's sluggish sales and shrinking margins.

Two years ago, exhibitors filled the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan's Hudson riverfront to overflowing. Last June, the big hall on the center's lower level went unused.

HALF MEASURES. In this year's June 25-27 edition, the lower hall reopened and partly filled, but vast spaces in the main upper hall were walled off. While what was left of the show floor was crowded, it was probably less than half the exhibit space of PC Expo at its peak.

To some extent, stringent cost-cutting has dictated smaller "booths," as even elaborate, 10,000 square-foot displays are known. Not only have many of the dot-coms that crowded the hall two years ago vanished, many more substantial companies have been acquired.

Once, Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) would each have had a large booth. This year, HP represented both in a display that was relatively modest, considering that the company was introducing a total overhaul of its consumer-printer line with 50 new products. Microsoft (MSFT) and IBM (IBM) once vied to have the biggest display on the floor. This year, both were shadows of their former selves.

GOLD-PLATED APPLE. The costs of exhibiting at a trade show can be staggering, and renting the space from the show organizers is only the beginning. Rigging an elaborate booth can run to many thousands of dollars, especially under Javits' labor rates and work rules. Staffing a booth means pulling people off their day jobs, sending them to New York, and housing them in expensive Manhattan hotels. No wonder companies are cutting back.

Actually, there was a great deal more to PC Expo than met the eye. Many major companies, including Dell Computer (DELL), Gateway (GTW), Philips, Canon (CAJ), and Epson were in New York in force -- but not at Javits. Instead, they rented hotel meeting rooms or the lofts that are abundant on Manhattan's West Side to show their wares. Often the focus of these meetings was on products the companies have not yet announced but are willing to show to selected customers and media representatives.

"Selected" is the key. Many company executives told me they had abandoned the show floor because, as one put it, "the attendees just aren't the people we want to see." Some shows, such as the International Consumer Electronics Show, held each January in Las Vegas, succeed in bringing buyers and sellers together. Although PC Expo, like most such shows, is officially open only to "the trade," exhibitors complain that there seem to be a lot more idly curious lookers than qualified buyers among the crowds on the floor. On the show's final day, the average age of attendees seemed to be diving toward about 18.

END OF AN ERA? Bringing engineers and marketing reps to New York to stand around and talk to techie teenagers is not likely to produce a very good return on investment, even when companies are flush. And that's bad news for trade shows, especially relatively unfocused ones. In any event, this year was the last for PC Expo as we have known it. Next year, its time slot will be occupied by a New York edition of Germany's CeBit, whose annual March tech-fest in Hannover bills itself as the world's largest -- and, at eight days, certainly the longest technology show.

TechXNY/PC Expo will reemerge in mid-September. But even many vendors who attended this year are wondering, and doing so out loud, whether they'll come back. September, they say, is too late for fall products, too early for spring products, and too close to Comdex, held in Las Vegas each year over the week before Thanksgiving. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online

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