CES Is Coming to Town

“The press-heads were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of CES danced in their heads.”

It’s the same every year. With the festivities of the season keeping everyone furiously running around making preparations for holiday celebrations, those of us involved in the consumer electronics industry—manufacturers, public relations folks, distributors, dealers, trade press, and consumer press (note the hierarchy!)—have something else on our minds—the annual January CES.

For manufacturers, they’re finishing up with the prototypes with which they plan to wow CES-goers. Many of these are the pie-in-the-sky “show cars—products that might or might not ever see production. But more important are the new models likely to show up in stores over the next few months. They’re the introductions that produce the most buzz, not to mention their eventual importance to a company’s bottom line. Typically, when asked when they’ll be available, the answer is March. I believe that’s the most popular answer because it’s far enough away that the questioner and public will soon forget how subjective it was, and not so near that panic ensues at the factory! Another choice answer is “It’s available now!” which either means that the manufacturer has great timing or that it’s really not new and has been out for months!

Manufacturing deadlines are often more flexible than press deadlines, but for a big manufacturer, which must introduce new models each year, a production deadline can assume serious importance. If a manufacturer sets a deadline for the introduction of a new model, and tools up for it, any delay could result in a gap in product shipments (and revenue!). Production of last year’s models will have ceased and next years models are delayed. Hair pulling time.

PR folks are now busy writing press releases. It’s likely that they’ll be doing this at the last minute, as manufacturers may still be firming up their product’s features, availability, and prices. Often the latter are TBD, which frustrates both the press and the public that reads our breathless prose.

Ten or so years ago we typically returned home from the show with a foot-high pile of press releases and manufacturer’s literature weighing in at 15 pounds. You needed to bring a spare suitcase to hold it all. Today you’ll end up with five ounces of flash drives, one or two lonely CDRs from companies who forgot that most new computers can’t handle them, promised e-mails (which often arrive too late to make it in time for our during-the-show blogs), and a few dozen business cards. Of the latter, there are always a few that come from PR agency X, but make no reference to the company or companies they serve. Two days after the show these invariably end up in the trash when we can’t recall the company they were working with at the show.

As you might expect, dealers comprise the bulk of attendees to the show. They often bring along some of their most productive salespeople to help them scope out the exhibits; no one person can hope to visit even half of them. Sometimes we in the press forget that the business of CES is business. For the exhibits at the Venetian Hotel (where most of the high-end audio exhibits are located) this can be frustrating. While we’re trying to listen to a system (most of these audio rooms do active demonstrations) there’ll often be one or more loud conversations going on in the back of the room. While this is always annoying, it helps to remember that without these discussions, sales (and perhaps the company itself) disappear.

We in the press do our best to cover the show. That’s why all publications of any size bring along several contributors to split up their coverage. With the growth of the Internet, the number of press attendees—most of them bloggers—has grown exponentially. It used to be that the press event for a major video manufacturer would draw a few hundred. Now it’s tripled. The pressroom is always full. I often wonder how many of the scribes there are writing exclusively from press releases and spend little time on the show floor. For us at Sound & Vision, it’s just the opposite. There’s always a tug-of-war between actually seeing as much as we can, talking to the manufacturers who might be able to provide information that didn’t make it into the press release, and blogging during the show. There’s never enough time for everything but we do our best.

CES is a show for the trade only and isn’t open to the general public. But among a total attendance that usually hovers around 150,000 there are always a few thousand hangers-on. Most of them get their “credentials” from dealers, manufacturers, or press people who know them. So if you’re among the unwashed (or even the washed) for whom this is your first show, a few words on “Doing CES” from someone who’s been to dozens of them might help.

How to Do Vegas
First, make your travel plans early. I realize that this might come a little late for this year, but it’s worth noting. Lodging prices in Las Vegas have jumped in price dramatically over the years since hotels realized that CES attendees aren’t big gamblers (well, most of us) but would pay premium room prices since most of them travel on expense accounts. If you’re paying your own way, don’t be surprised if Vegas’ hotels charge 50-100% more than they normally do during slow seasons (and if it weren’t for CES, the crowds in early January, after the holidays, are normally down—one of the reasons that CES has always been held then). Also expect the same of airline prices. I found that my ticket for CES was 50% higher than if I were travelling to Las Vegas just a week later!

Once you get to the show, plan on similar prices for everything including restaurants and (if you have no car) taxis. If you haven’t been to Vegas in years, the days of the $3.00 (or free!) buffets are long gone.

Since there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything at the show, know what you want to concentrate on. I’m always interested in what’s happening at the Ventian’s audio demos, but since my main beat is video I start there, only going to the Venetian after I’m satisfied that I’ve covered most flat screens, projectors (there are far fewer of those at CES than at CEDIA), and related products. Expect that you’ll always come back from the show and read about something interesting that you missed. It happens to all of us.

When you’re finished on the floor for the day, it helps to go through your notes and any brochures you’ve accumulated (including the daily CES rag and other trade publications that are everywhere) to review what you’ve seen and make plans for the next day. I did this all the time before during-show blogging became mandatory, but between that and late dinners it becomes harder to do. If you have no in-show reporting obligations, however, you can be more thorough in your planning.

Bring comfortable shoes, hand sanitizer, and minimize picking up heavy publications until late in the day. CES has recently forbidden the use of roller bags (I used to drag one along behind me as I strolled trippingly around the show floor), and that shoulder bag can become very heavy very quickly.

Also remember that Vegas weather, while usually clear in January (though there have been exceptions), is brisk, particularly at night. I recall a Vegas scene in the 1997 movie Fools Rush In where Matthew Perry’s character jumps into his convertible in January and recoils from the hot leather seat. In summer, yes. In the winter, not a chance! You can leave the snowshoes and North Face parka at home, but be prepared for days in the mid to high 50s and nights that can approach freezing.

But most of all, have a good time. Many of us complain about the chore of going to CES (not to mention the Bubonic Crud that many of us bring home with us—which is why I recommended hand sanitizer). But if you hate it you’re in the wrong business (or have the wrong hobby). Las Vegas may be something of an acquired taste (I was stationed there for 5 years in the Air Force, and away from the strip it’s just Albuquerque with slot machines in the super markets). But most of us secretly enjoy every minute of CES itself—not only the products, but the familiar (and new) press colleagues and industry faces whose brains we get to pick.

jnemesh's picture

Plan ahead of time who you want to visit! Then get a map of the exhibitors prior to your trip, one that shows SPECIFICALLY where the company's booth is located. Then prioritize the vendors you want to visit with, and have a PLAN in mind when you hit the floor! If you plan on visiting other venues, like the audio demos at the Venetian, take that into account, and plan AT LEAST half a day for those visits.

If you go in with a specific plan in mind, you will find you are able to visit a considerably larger number of vendors, see more gear, and most importantly, get a look at what you are most interested in FIRST...leaving the less important stuff for last, if at all.