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CES ends an era: Are big trade shows headed for extinction?

Microsoft's decision to exit the Consumer Electronics Show after this year is the nail in the coffin of the once-mighty industry trade show as we know it.

As only the latest in a long line of industry giants to decide to find other ways to promote its wares, Microsoft continues a trend that's seen companies like Apple and Verizon leave the once-sacrosanct gatherings in convention halls in favour of more targeted announcements that are better aligned to each organization's specific business needs and cycles.

Big companies used to — and in most cases, still do — pay big bucks to set up elaborate, optimally placed booths on the showroom floor and host splashy parties and announcements in attached hotel suites. But as more marquee players cancel keynotes and redirect their marketing efforts elsewhere, the future of the traditional trade show is increasingly called into question.

To be sure, CES won't die because of this most recent withdrawal. But it will once again be forced to change, and not necessarily for the better.

Shows like CES, COMDEX and CeBIT were once the highlights of the year in the technology market. Like the Oscars and Emmys, everyone who was anyone dropped everything else to attend. Whether you were a large vendor or a struggling startup with a need to rub shoulders with the tech glitterati, you flew in on overcrowded flights, stayed at overpriced hotels and waited hours for overtaxed shuttles and taxis to take you to oversized convention centers. You put up with the expense and aggravation because these shows were the places to be if you wanted to still be relevant — or even in business — a year from now.

As the Internet has rewritten the basic rules for so many industries, the trade convention space hasn't emerged unscathed. Like auto shows and other major annual industry events, tech industry trade shows are no longer the exclusive venue for major vendor or industry announcements. The online news cycle has rendered obsolete the traditional practice of releasing product information in a big bang manner on the convention hall floor.

Instead, gadget sites like Gizmodo and Engadget leak product news 24/7, year-round to an eager public. Spending most of the marketing budget on even a modest Las Vegas presence no longer makes sense for some. That same money could just as easily drive a year-round campaign that mixes conventional, online and social media marketing elements far more cost effectively than any booth ever could.

Unlike COMDEX, which was the granddaddy of them all before going dark after 2003, CES is closed to members of the general public. Only accredited journalists and vendors with deep enough pockets to afford the floor space need apply. Despite being closed to consumers, CES casts a long shadow over the buying habits of consumers and enterprises alike, as the media coverage it generates often sets the tone for the industry for months to come.

To some, a Microsoft-free CES may signify a bleak future — in much the same way a mall that loses its anchor department store tenants often ends up with dollar stores and Halloween liquidation outlets — but all is not lost for CES and other shows like it. Organizers can limit their losses by re-structuring what they charge and how they do so. By making show participation more accessible to the emerging breed of tech industry startups — companies whose very DNA was built on viral online connectedness and not hotel room lobbying — shows like CES can remain important contributors to the industry's marketing efforts.

Although shows like CES might shrink in size, frequency and influence, and they may evolve into other, less spectacular forms, there will likely always be a place for industry shows of some kind, an opportunity to get together, in person, and make connections that just wouldn't happen to the same degree online.

You can only audioconference or Skype so much before you need to get in front of someone. And no technology yet has proven it can fully replace the art of making deals in hotel conference rooms and crowded booths. Internet connectivity may have changed the calculus of the omnibus tech conference, but evolution will ensure it remains, to a certain degree, a part of the landscape for some time to come.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist.