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Apple's MacWorld Bailout: The Outlook for Trade Shows

I had already scratched CES off of my January calendar but was starting to book meetings for MacWorld, leaving time open for the Steve Jobs keynote speech, of course. Steve JobsBut now that Jobs is sending in a second-stringer for the big spotlight event, I'm starting to wonder if I should even bother to show up for the trade show. I suspect there won't be any real news there, seeing how the best that the Apple rumor mill has been able to round up is an iPhone Nano, new Mac Mini or a netbook. Without Steve Jobs and his "one more thing" at the keynote, it just seems like a waste. (photo credit: CNET)

Initially, I wondered if Steve Jobs' absence had anything to do with his health. Ever since Jobs appeared at a conference looking unusually thin and frail earlier this year, bloggers and analysts have been asking for a health update on Jobs, a pancreatic cancer survivor.

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But, when Apple dropped its bombshell announcement that Jobs would not deliver the keynote and that the company would not return to the annual trade show in 2010, I found myself thinking more about the ripple effect that would be created, not just for Macworld but for trade shows, in general - especially technology trade shows. In a very brief press release, the company summed it up best:

Apple is reaching more people in more ways than ever before, so like many companies, trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers. The increasing popularity of Apple's Retail Stores, which more than 3.5 million people visit every week, and the website enable Apple to directly reach more than a hundred million customers around the world in innovative new ways. Apple has been steadily scaling back on trade shows in recent years, including NAB, Macworld New York, Macworld Tokyo and Apple Expo in Paris.
I hadn't really thought too much about it but it only makes sense that the Internet's next victim would be the trade show. Think about the outreach tools that companies have at their disposal these days. Webcasts have become online events where people from around the globe can attend without booking a flight, hotel room or restaurant reservations. Viral videos are being produced by companies to showcase their products and technologies in real-world environments. Brand names are creating loyal followings via "fan memberships" on social networking sites such as Facebook. And, increasingly, there are smaller intimate shows that cater to crowds with specific interests - conferences dealing with social networking, cloud computing, open source and more. Those shows reach the audiences they want to reach and the bank doesn't have to be broken to participate.

But what a devastating blow to local economies. Without Apple or Jobs, Macworld is pretty much a bust - and that means fewer people have reason to attend. That, in turn, means that hotel rooms are left empty, restaurants never start a waiting list, cab drivers keep circling around in search of a fare and even the bars might think twice before killing happy hour specials. Think I'm exaggerating? Try to find a hotel room in Las Vegas during CES week and you'll find plenty of choices - and some real bargains. Historically, Las Vegas hotels during CES are all but sold out by early November. This year, the Vegas economy will feel the pinch.

In previous years, one of my biggest reasons for attending CES was the Bill Gates keynote speech. But this year, it's Steve Ballmer instead of Gates. And I don't know that there's really anything on the Microsoft radar that warrants a trek to Vegas - Windows 7 is still a year away and Windows Mobile is getting clobbered by Apple, RIM and Google. And if there's any real news out of CES, I'm sure I'll read about it - in real-time on blogs, Twitter or Facebook. But I don't need to be there.

Yes, I'll still be at Macworld - but not because it's a must-attend show. Apple and Jobs, within hours, pretty much killed that feeling. Instead, I'll go because Moscone Center is only a short walk from my San Francisco office. Otherwise, I would just feel guilty submitting an expense form for a trip like that - especially in this economy.

Sam Diaz is a senior editor at ZDNet. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations. This post first appeared on ZDNet's Between the Lines blog.