If you're working at a meeting or event in connection with Comdex next year, consider taking a break from your labors for an on-site seminar on marketing high-tech products in Latin America. Or schmooze with representatives of a destination you're thinking of for your next developer meeting. Both those activities were possible for the first time at the Comdex Fall '98 Show held in Las Vegas in mid-November, with the debut of the marketing support services pavilion.

The Great Wall of Video: ZDTV commentators provided instant commentary on Comdex. "Were dealing with about 40,000 marketing professionals, all high-tech oriented, who represent exhibiting companies and attending companies. It's an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up," says William R. Sell, general manager of the Comdex Group, ZD Events, the Needham, Mass.-based outfit that runs America's largest information technology exposition. "The marketing support pavilion [one of a dozen themed pavilions at Comdex] was created as a way to service those attendees. We decided it would be a good idea to give them an educational program, put on by the American Marketing Association (AMA), and have exhibitors who support their day-to-day life, like exhibit survey companies."

And convention and visitor bureaus, too. The Denver Metro CVB brought a contingent of nine to work its booth, led by Karen M. Garcia, convention sales manager. Rod Sanchez, convention sales manager for the CVB of Kansas City, was also on hand with a booth.

Asked what the CVBs were doing at Comdex, Sell says they obviously understand that there is a lot of opportunity in high tech. "If you're a marketing VP at any high-tech company, you've got user groups, company meetings, product launches . . . Where the heck do you go? Why not have 500 user-group members go to Denver or Kansas City?"

He adds that the really lucrative business was likely to come from start-up companies, which are a prime source of new products. "They're the ones that need help the most, and while we know most of them will fail, we also know there's a replacement market built in," he says. "It's great when a start-up company has a blockbuster, but it's also great to have 50 start-up companies coming back to you every six months for business."

26 Exhibitors, 15 Seminars All told, there were 26 exhibitors in the marketing support pavilion, ranging from makers of promotional bags to a maker of private aircraft to an outfit promoting private villa rentals in the Caribbean for seminars and incentives. One of the most elaborate booths was put up by The United Arab Emirates, which was promoting Dubai partly as a meeting destination but more as a place to build semiconductor fabs. Both New York City and Albuquerque, N.M. were there for the same reason. Rod Sanchez, of the Kansas City CVB, says he plans to have at least one economic development person in his booth next year.

There were also 15 seminars aimed at high-tech marketing professionals hosted by the AMA and co-sponsored by the Computer Event Marketing Association (CEMA) and Exhibitor Magazine. The pavilion was located in one of the least-trafficked (insofar as one can say any part of Comdex had low traffic) areas, the right rear corner of the Sands Expo Center. "Keeping it separate in the back of the Sands hall, yet still part of the whole show, worked out well," says Sell, who adds that there will "absolutely" be another marketing support pavilion at the 1999 exposition.

What did the pavilion's exhibitors think? "We never go to a show with the expectation of booking business right off the show floor," says Doug Wittenberg, sales manager for the Inverness Hotel & Golf Club in Englewood, Colo., a member of the Denver Metro CVB cadre. "We concentrated on making our own luck." He says that walking the show with a simple handout to give exhibitors at their booths, combined with direct mail and judicious telemarketing, paid dividends.

"It may take a while for Comdex attendees to understand the participation of hotels and CVBs in their show, but we are there to learn as much as we are there to sell," he says. "I feel that as awareness of the marketing support pavilion continues to grow, exhibiting at the show will be more and more lucrative."

Why Comdex, Anyway? While the marketing support pavilion represents new growth for Comdex, the picture is not all rosy. Much was made of the absence of some high-profile exhibitors at Comdex this year, including IBM, Netscape, Compaq, Western Digital, and Intel, which was present although not on the show floor (see "Rooms vs. Booths," page 44). Is the show so big it's "out of control," as one computer consultant told The Wall Street Journal?

"There's a good reason for a horizontal show," says Sell. "Let's say I'm a chief information officer for an airline company. I can go one week to an Internet show, one week to a telecom show, and one week to an accounting show, but by attending Comdex, I get the best of both worlds: I see everything I need to see, and I can bring all my team leaders along to look at specific stuff in the themed pavilions." Pavilions--booths grouped around a theme--are sort of mini-shows within the show. There were corporate themes (the Microsoft Partner Pavilion) and technology themes (the Linux Software Developers Pavilion).

There's another, less obvious, reason for a big show, says Sell. "Software developers can always point to Comdex as a deadline for introducing a new product," he says, suggesting that a deadline can create a sense of urgency for product developers.

In November, Comdex Fall '98 will be the last big information technology show of the 20th Century. It will also be the show's 20th anniversary. "We'll have the movers and shakers of the next decade," Sell says. "There's still a lot to be said about what's ahead."

Rooms vs. Booths What do exhibitors want? More and more, they want meeting rooms. That's the word from Comdex Fall '98, where a record 121 companies booked 70 meeting rooms at the Las Vegas Convention Center either in addition to or instead of booths this year. Which exhibitors? "Companies that want to hold one-on-one sessions with customers or the media, and multimedia companies like SoundBlaster that want to set the lights down low and crank up the volume," says William R. Sell, general manager of the Comdex Group at ZD Events, organizers of the Comdex Fall '98 exposition. "A lot of battery companies take rooms. If I'm making special-sized batteries, and I want to meet with 15 laptop manufacturers, I may not want an open booth."

In fact, many of the companies that made headlines for not taking booths at Comdex this year--like Intel--were, in fact, on the exhibitor list, just not on the show floor. As far as Sell is concerned, this is just fine--because the per-square-foot charge is the same for booths or meeting space. "If you want your exhibit in the format of a four-walled meeting room, you're welcome to it. Every square foot is priced the same."

Vegas: A High-Tech Mecca? "There are some hurdles to putting a high-tech event in Las Vegas," says William R. Sell, general manager of the Comdex Group at ZD Events, organizers of the Comdex Fall '98 exposition. "There is no IT [information technology] community here. With the exception of visitors from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and--increasingly--Salt Lake City, this isn't a day-trip market." But, he adds, there is a high-tech industry emerging around the idea of Las Vegas as an assembly and distribution center with low labor costs. "The airport is becoming one of the best in the Southwest," he says. "McCarren is growing, it is not congested, and the weather is usually good."

As far as the city's infrastructure, Sell, who presides over an exposition that will see its 20th year in Las Vegas in 1999, is a booster. "The area around The Sands has been under construction for two years, and next year we'll see the benefits. The Venetian will be a 3,036-room premium hotel [6,000 rooms when a second tower is completed in 2000] with direct access to The Sands Expo Center." He adds that the city has come to understand the importance of the convention business and is making the necessary infrastructure moves to prove it, from expanding the airport to reconfiguring the street layout around the Las Vegas Convention Center and The Sands Expo Center. In addition, he points out, the city's inventory of hotel rooms increased by 22,000 in 1998, and will increase again before the next Comdex as the 2,914 -room Paris and the Venetian open.

With so much new room inventory, room rates at 50 of the 54 hotels used for Comdex actually came down this year. He was flabbergasted by the response this got from the high-tech press: "This is the first time media people have come to us and said it is not good that room rates have come down," he says, wonderingly. "They think that means there's trouble in the area. Do they want to pay $350 a night for a room?"