Biggest Gadget Show Nears Crossroads

The biggest. The smallest. The thinnest. The fastest.

Superlatives reign each year at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, an international gadget spectacular in Las Vegas that is the biggest technology trade show in the world.

But as the recession is forcing companies to scrutinize how they spend every last dime this year, some industry watchers are starting to wonder if, and when, a new superlative might be appropriate: the last.

In June 2004, organizers of COMDEX (the Computer Dealers' Exhibition), a major computer expo also held in Las Vegas, canceled the annual show because of dwindling participation.

In December, when Apple announced that Steve Jobs would not attend this week's Macworld and would no longer participate after this year, analysts wondered how long Macworld could last without the iconic Jobs and the revolutionary company he founded.

Following reports of unoccupied hotel rooms in Las Vegas and widespread corporate cut-backs, Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, asked this week in a column for a technology industry news site, "Will This CES Be the Last?

"This suggests a show like the last COMDEX where I'll actually have a great time but folks will wonder whether it is the last CES," he wrote.

"I think it's, once again, causing people to think about the value of going to shows like this," Enderle said.

Given the timing so close to the holidays and the high cost of the booth, especially in a bad economy, "shows like this might fall off," he said.

When buyers and sellers couldn't rely on the Internet to connect and unveil new products, he said, trade shows like CES were necessary for business. But now that products can be publicized online and technology takes less time to bring to market, CES is mainly a media event.

If this isn't the last CES, Enderle told, he thinks the end might come in a couple of years.

CES is not only the largest trade show in North America but the biggest technology gathering in the world. But that gathering and the glitz are scaled back this year in the economic downturn. About 300 fewer companies are exhibiting this year in 1.7 million square feet of exhibit space, down from 3,000 in 2008, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs the trade show. The Arlington, Va.-based association is expecting 130,000 attendees from Jan. 8 to 11, compared to last year's 141,000.

Association spokeswoman Laura Hubbard told that despite the buzz since Apple's decision to stop exhibiting at Macworld and lower attendance levels, CES is in safe territory because it's a trade show that is not open to consumers.

CES Still in Good Shape

Despite the flagging economy, CES and the industry it showcases are still in good shape, she said.

"Unlike other industries, the consumer electronics industry is giving consumers products that they depend on for their daily lives," Hubbard said, adding that manufacturers are unveiling all-in-one, multi-functional products to adapt to the climate.

Additionally, she said, CES and other trade shows are economical solutions for businesses. Instead of traveling to 12 different locations to meet clients or sellers, businesses can come to the show and meet all of them in one trip.

But analysts point out that the trip is still an expensive one.

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