Harry Tsao came out swinging: "Trade shows are great, but is it really worth investing a million dollars--once you factor in all costs--to come to Comdex?" Tsao, vice president of marketing for ShowExpo.com, a Pasadena, Calif., company that offers trade show-like service from a Web site, wasn't afraid of telling an audience of show and event managers that computer events were too big, too expensive, and not effective enough at delivering business.

So began the Computer Event Marketing Association (CEMA) Face-to-Face luncheon conference at Comdex. Held November 18 at the Benihana Restaurant in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, it was by all accounts the best-attended (87 participants) meeting of its type in CEMA's history.

Tsao's main sparring partner was William R. Sell, general manager of ZDEvents' Comdex Group--the gentleman in charge of the 220,000-attendee convention of which the CEMA luncheon was a tiny part. Also on the panel was Marilyn R. Kroner, at the time the trade show and events manager for Exabyte Corp. of Boulder, Colo. As a show manager and neutral party, she was there to ask Tsao and Sell where a virtual trade show service like ShowExpo.com might fit in the overall marketing mix. But Tsao's strong opening statement put her more in the position of referee.

Virtual Infant Sell counterpunched well: "I might point out that Harry is exhibiting here to launch a virtual trade show," he said. "Will virtual trade shows replace live events? If you look at Trade-show Week's figures, there are more high-tech shows than ever. Obviously the virtual show hasn't replaced much of anything. It's still in its infancy."

*New CEMA Director

The Computer Event Marketing Association recently hired a new executive director for its Sudbury, Mass.-based office. Leigh Walker, former director of programs and services for the Northeast Public Power Association, fills the post vacated by Melissa Bachelder. Walker's responsibilities include expanding the CEMA membership and member services; and overseeing event planning, the CEMA Web site (www.cemaonline.com), the CEMA Communicator newsletter, and other association communications. She welcomes your comments and suggestions. If you want to learn more about CEMA, contact Walker at (978) 443-3330, ext. 1228; cema@ndegree.com.

CEMA's annual meeting, Summit '99, will be held July 27 to 30 at Chateau Mont Tremblant in Quebec.

Tsao backed off a little, saying he expected his site (www.showexpo.com) to draw well from the SOHO (small office/home office) market, which he described as a fast-growing market that includes people without the time or resources to attend a convention like Comdex. He reported that since his site had opened the day before (November 17), it had pulled 250,000 hits in 13 hours--far above projections.

Kroner offered a defense of live events: "At a virtual trade show, people can only request information. At your booth, they can experience your product face-to-face. The important question to me is where virtual trade shows fit in the marketing mix? Will there someday be a virtual trade show manager? Should face-to-face marketers own this part of the marketing effort?"

Virtually Standing Intel's Bob Singer summed up the role of the virtual show: "This is just another form of marketing communications," he said, adding that Intel had created its own virtual booth at the Embedded Systems show, which required teamwork between the trade show team and the marketing communications team.

Asked whether there were any virtual booth staff at ShowExpo.com, Tsao said that a chat feature, using a live person, was in the works. Singer told the audience that Intel was trying out new videoconferencing technology that would provide good-quality video over low-cost phone lines. "We'll have somebody on our Web site to respond to queries," he said, then waited a beat and added, "And we'll make them stand up all day."

In closing, Sell asked the crowd whether the exhibitor handbook and contracts ought to be offered at the Comdex Web site. Kroner pointed out that while it was a great idea, there still had to be printed materials. "We're still dealing with service contractors who don't want to use the Web."

fast facts * From city to city, the tax bite on your hotel bill can vary as much as 8 percent. Here are the highest and the lowest hotel tax rates from America's 50 top cities. The figure includes state taxes, local occupancy taxes, and any other surtaxes imposed.

There are several unusual aspects of the proposed World Expo Center project in Central Florida. For one thing, if the developers' ambitious plans come to fruition, the 2.4 million-square-foot facility will be the nation's biggest exhibition hall, outdistancing even McCormick's 2.2 million square feet. Then there's the money trail: Not only is WEC being funded mostly by private money, but, for the first time in the trade show industry's history, show management companies are joining as equity partners, contributing a total of 20 percent of the funding.

While WEC execs would not reveal the three partners' names at press time, they are "show management companies and associations that represent hundreds of shows--every type of show you can think of, including high technology," says Jerry Zwick, executive vice president, WEC.

In return for their investment, partners are getting what amounts to time shares, trade show-style. They are guaranteed dates and space for the next 40 years, receive a five percent discount off hall rental fees, and get a share of the center's total revenue. They also get a "'noncompete'" guarantee. If a show that is potentially competitive to an equity partner's show--meaning that 15 percent of the products are similar--wants to rent the hall, the investor has the right to deny the booking. There is an exception to that guarantee--technology shows. "Technology shows are a fuzzy area," explains Zwick. "The range of shows is so wide, it is difficult to classify what would be a competitive show."

While the WEC concept is being hailed as innovative, the project is running into some serious obstacles. The most formidable comes from the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, which is seeking to block a bond package earmarked to fund a county convention center. The center is part of the WEC vision: The $1.1 billion proposed project includes the exposition hall, the 120,000-square-foot, county-owned convention center, three hotels with 5,000 rooms, parking for 20,000 cars, and a shopping mall and entertainment complex. The development cannot move forward until the bond issue is resolved.

While some press reports suggest the project is in trouble, Jim Lewis, WEC vice president of national sales, expects the situation to be resolved by spring. If the court overturns the bond validation, "It will delay the project, not kill it," he says. WEC execs are now predicting a 2002 opening. --Tamar Hosansky

*THE EURO IS COMING--READY OR NOT On January 1, 1999, the 11 members of the European Community who have agreed to participate in currency union (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain) must start keeping track of transactions in the euro as well as in their local currencies. On January 1, 2002, local currencies will disappear, and all transactions in the 11 countries will be conducted in euros.

Here are some of the advantages and problems the euro will create for North American meeting planners between now and 2002:

Advantages * Transparent pricing. "Customers will be able to easily compare costs of hotel accommodation . . . throughout Europe," says Gebhard Rainer, director of finance for Hyatt International Hotels Europe. Price differentials will be even more obvious on commodities like coffee and soft drinks. There are some predictions that there will be a leveling effect on prices.

* Cheaper currency exchange. Even at the beginning of the transition, local currencies will be exchanged based on their rate against the euro, and the euro's against the dollar. That means planners need only pay attention to the euro/dollar, and overall transaction costs should be reduced.

Problems * Uneven rates of adoption. With 11 participating nations, there are 11 different plans for the changeover. The Dutch contemplate a "big-bang" change--swift and complete. Other countries are still arguing among themselves about how to pace the introduction of the euro.

* Mistakes and fraud. In any changeover, there are likely to be both honest errors and close dealing by businesspeople who hope to exploit a confusing situation.

* Contract integrity. Any contracts with hotels or congress halls that involve escrow accounts or in any way make reference to interest rate benchmarks are going to be a problem. --David Erickson

*HILTON/UNISYS PILOT Hotels handle in-room connectivity and productivity in a variety of ways--from workstations that wheel from guest to guest, to T1 data ports for every room. Hilton Hotels has come up with its own approach--the Essential Guest Services Network (EGSN).

The project is a partnership of Hilton and Unisys Corp., with a pilot program now under way in 12 guest rooms at the Anaheim (Calif.) Hilton and Towers. EGSN rooms feature a touch-screen monitor, a PC unit (without a hard drive), and an optional keyboard. The workstation is wired to in-hotel servers, which are then wired to a large off-site Unisys server system, giving guests access to

* hotel services database,

* e-mail (no laptop needed),

* Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint software, and the Internet Explorer 4.01 browser,

* virtual jukebox--120,000 songs that can be played or purchased,

* worldwide news and weather,

* interactive computer games,

* information on local attractions, dining, and entertainment, and

* the ability to book any Hilton Hotel, and obtain status reports on Hilton frequent-traveler accounts.

Services will be offered at no cost to guests. Hilton expects to pay for the system through e-commerce and advertising revenues. However, even if the pilot goes well, EGSN will be installed only in executive class rooms. Look for the rooms to come on-line throughout 1999.

*QUICK PROJECTORS RentQuick.com, a new company out of Fisherville, Va., is taking a niche approach to the audiovisual rental market. The company rents only data video projectors. And it rents only four types, at that.

RentQuick.com does not supply audio, staging, or most other things you would expect from an AV company. It ships its projectors in a hard-shell case via second-day FedEx. Tech support is handled over a 24-hour, seven-day, toll-free tech line. But despite the minimalist approach, owner Brett Hayes stresses that RentQuick.com isn't just a shipping company; it works with customers both before an event (to determine the right projector) and during the rental period (tracking the shipment and answering questions).

The product line ranges from a $99 per day Sony, appropriate for PowerPoint presentations, up to a high-end InFocus unit. Visit the company at www.rentquick.com.

*Silicon Jets San Jose International Airport continues to strengthen its transcontinental scheduling. After American Airlines added nonstops to New York and Washington Dulles last summer, United Airlines stepped in with a new Dulles flight in September. Now, Continental will begin flying nonstop service from San Jose to New York/Newark on May 1.

*PEOPLE IN THE NEWS Benchmark Tape Systems Corp., Boulder, Colo., brought on Marilyn R. Kroner in early January to work on the company's trade shows and events. Her title was not yet known at press time. Previously, Kroner was ma nager, trade shows/events/leads for Exabyte Corp., also in Boulder.

American Show Management has named Pat Kearney as president and CEO. ASM, based in Portland, Ore, produces more than 50 IT events a year through its Information Technology Expositions & Conferences division. Kearney most recently served as vice president North American sales & operations for Central Point Software.

Le Meridien Boston has named Kelly Lennon sales manager, responsible for booking computer and high-tech groups in the Chicago and Los Angeles areas. She joins from Fiesta Americana Hotels in Chicago.

D. Catherine Sherry has joined Pacific Agenda, a meeting and incentive planning company in San Francisco, as sales manager. Previously, she served as director of sales--international with DL Transnational Associates Inc., a destination management company in Boston.

The Network Conference Company, which manages The Hayes Conference Center in San Jose, Calif., and the Network Meeting Center at Techmart, in Santa Clara, Calif., has promoted Dan Marks to the newly created position of vice president of sales and marketing. He had been director of sales at The Hayes. Assuming his former position is Tracy Berg, who previously served as director of sales at Techmart.

Mark Leiss has been named regional vice president, sales and marketing for PGI, the Arlington, Va.-based event and communications agency. Based in New York, Leiss will handle corporate clients in New York and New England. He had been with Caribiner International, heading up sales to the telecommunications and high-tech industries.