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As those of us who are preparing to depart for Comdex next week get ready for our trip to the big amusement park known as Las Vegas, it’s time to reflect back on why Comdex has declined as sharply as it has and to pause to remember how important and necessary an event like this has been–and needs to be again.

Comdex started as a way to get resellers and buyers of technology excited about new products and build demand for them. Because of the timing of the event, Fall Comdex was always more in line with what VARs and other resellers needed than with what buyers needed but buyers went anyway to get a sense for what was coming. As a result Spring Comdex, which was timed better for buyers (due to budget cycles), was always relatively poorly attended.

A second advantage of the fall show was that, since a large number buyers and resellers were both in the same place, a lot of meetings could occur in a very short period of time; buyers could express interest in products and resellers would know what to buy to cover this demand. It was seen as a business powerhouse and, even though it was in Las Vegas, it became a “do not miss” show for vendors, resellers, and large IT buyers. In short it was a good part of what built demand in the IT market in the 80s and early 90s.

Unfortunately, over time, other kinds of technology products found their way to the show. The first indication that this was a major problem was in 1994 when the porn industry descended hard on Comdex. The only clear way you knew you were at a porn booth was that it was typically much better funded and there were lines in front of the women operating the booth. I had one of those wonderfully embarrassing experiences myself where I wasn’t paying enough attention, saw a booth that looked like a palace and walked over and actually asked what they sold. I knew the answer before I finished my sentence.

Porn was moved to a different location but then electronic games, consumer electronics and even some automotive technology entered the picture. Over the next few years, the show attracted more and more end users who were simply there to be entertained. People who wanted to do business, overcome by the huge lines and inability to do that business, increasingly stayed away.

The folks running Comdex saw the massive audience, didn’t realize that this overweight beast was dieing, and got way too full of themselves. They took actions that started to drive away key vendors. The biggest, IBM, was driven out because they lost their prime location as a result of missing a meeting; to teach them a lesson the Comdex officials at the time refused to give it back. IBM never came back and I imagine the lesson that was taught was not what was intended.

After that, the bloom was clearly off the rose and more and more vendors started to realize that Comdex was a boondoggle where relatively little business was done. It was only the opportunity for press coverage that kept many of the vendors there (along with the fact that this remained, for many, the biggest show they attended and the related staff didn’t want to get laid off or reassigned). When the recession took hold in 2001 and 2002, staff and budget were cut from things that weren’t critical; participating in, and attending, Comdex was high on that list. It was clear to most everyone that Comdex was all but dead.

Now it is 2003 and new management has stepped in to take this show back to its roots, promising to once again return it to a smaller business-oriented show. And they are executing on that promise. As before, the need for the show has not diminished. An event where resellers and buyers can get together to determine demand and cut deals is just as important in the technology industry as it is in the automotive industry, clothing industry, and consumer electronics industry. Without it, much of the market will not get excited about buying new technologies and, without that excitement, demand is likely to remain well below historic levels.

However, the IT market is no longer tied to a set buying cycle. Vendors, resellers, and buyers are connected electronically like never before. We are also in a much more hostile world where people are increasingly concerned with going to places where there are lots of people or where they have to fly to get there. As a result, it is my belief that if Comdex is to once again be relevant it needs to embrace much of the technology it advocates and virtualize the event. To do that is going to require rethinking how events like this are put on, how they are funded, how information about them is disseminated, and how leads are passed back to vendors and resellers to justify the expense.

To fix its problems Comdex has returned to its roots in the 80s and become much more business-oriented. To be truly relevant and to once again become the market driver the IT industry needs, it now needs to move into the current century and demonstrate mastery of the technology it showcases. Comdex has the potential to be great again, it is ironic that to get there it–like many of the vendors and resellers it represents–needs to finally adapt the technology it has long been selling.