This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2003-07-21 at 12:00 p.m.
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Macworld Expo New York 2003: Highly Concentrated

by Adam C. Engst

"So what do you think of the show?"

If I hear those words one more time, I swear I'll scream. This Macworld Expo in New York City has felt a bit like a collective therapy session, where everyone is trying to figure out how everyone else is feeling. So let's work through a few facts and observations before moving on to what I thought of the show.

First off, yes, the show floor was less than half the size of previous years, occupying only one of the two cavernous halls that it usually uses, and not even all of that one, if you peered behind the curtains. (With apologies to the Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to the space behind the curtains!") As I told people who asked me what I thought of the show on the first day, when I'd had several straight hours of presentations and meetings after the keynote, "I don't know, since I haven't seen the show floor at all yet. [Pause for a brief glance around.] Okay, now that I've seen it all..." Unfortunately, the second hall wasn't completely blocked off, emphasizing the small size of this year's show.

It's also true, and it was painfully obvious, that there were many fewer exhibitors than in previous years, with large booths in particularly short supply. Without the inclusion of Apple's large booth, and the good-sized booths from Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard, the curtains would have been pulled in much further. Plus, the number of exhibitors was boosted by last minute fire sale prices on booth space that made attendance possible for some companies that wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford the space to exhibit. Even still, the lack of exhibitors meant that many attendees left early instead of sticking around for the entire three days.

Equally clear was the fact that attendance was far lower than in previous years. Although the aisles were often crowded, with only a single hall of exhibitors, it stands to reason that fewer people could easily fill the available space. Compressing the show floor into a smaller space helped keep the energy high, and IDG World Expo also worked to shrink the conference rooms so lower attendance wasn't noticed. My iPhoto session was standing room only, but in a room that was smaller than in previous years. Along with fewer people at this year's TidBITS Ice Cream Social the night before Macworld, the main place I noticed the lower attendance was at the keynote, since with Apple's Greg "Joz" Joswiak gamely standing in for Steve Jobs, there was no need to corral the media in a special holding area or to organize block-long lines for the rest of the attendees.

Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, commented on the size of the show floor and the reduced number of exhibitors. My tongue-in-cheek joke was that it was like the scene from the movie Spinal Tap in which the band, on the way down in popularity, plays a gig where they're billed below a puppet show: "If I've told them once, I've told them hundred times... put 'Macworld Expo' first and 'Puppet Show' last." In a fit of extreme cleverness, I first made that joke to a friend who was talking at the time to a guy who turned out to be a sales rep for IDG World Expo. Open mouth, insert foot, lather, rinse, and repeat...

So the show was an utter failure, right? Far from it.

I talked to many exhibitors, and almost without exception, they ranged from quite happy to ecstatic about the number of people who were coming by their booths and asking questions about their products. Those companies selling products on the floor were reporting lower sales than last year, but at levels that were either in proportion with the reduced attendance or well above what had been expected.

If you could get people to stop talking about how small the show floor was, they seemed pretty happy about what they'd seen. I found a number of companies with interesting products, and I'm sure that if you were a real "creative professional" there were even more products of interest.

For both attendees and exhibitors, there's no question that expectations were pretty low, making it easy for the show to exceed them. In some ways, it's a little too bad, since if IDG World Expo hadn't panicked and started changing the name of the show willy-nilly, it's entirely likely that there would have been more exhibitors and a broader range of attendees. It's not as though all Macworld Expos - even those since the return of Steve Jobs - have had Apple keynotes that included scores of product announcements; had IDG World Expo stayed the original course, sans Apple, the show might have been larger.

So how was it possible that a Macworld Expo could end up being a good show, without a Steve Jobs keynote, major new product announcements from Apple, or even booths from Microsoft (present only via a banner), Adobe (which had some rooms downstairs for presentations), or Quark (which did a feature presentation)? Perhaps, just as in Dr. Seuss's children's book How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Macworld Expo isn't about all those material things, but is instead successful based on something else, something a little less empirical. Or perhaps that's just me being fuzzy-brained in the early morning hours of a city that never sleeps. But if the exhibitors were happy, and the attendees were happy (even if they left early), then the only one left is IDG World Expo, and I suspect their happiness will be tied purely to the bottom line, which they aren't likely to reveal.

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Whither Macworld? So all this begs the question of where Macworld Expo will go in the future, at least for the East Coast show. Honestly, I have no idea, and IDG World Expo wasn't announcing anything on the show signage. Their Web site still claims Macworld will be in Boston starting 12-Jul-04, but there were rumors at the show of those plans falling through. I see a few possibilities.

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We'll just have to wait and see what IDG World Expo decides to do. Though this possibility doesn't seem likely, it would be interesting if IDG World Expo decided to move away from the monolithic shows and toward smaller regional shows that would attract more local users and companies. The Los Angeles Macintosh User Group used to put on a one-day event along those lines, and it's not far from the Mac Mania cruise approach either. Those sort of shows might not bring in the big bucks, but it doesn't look to me as though the big bucks are out there to be brought in anyway.

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