What it's like at CES
A bunch of people sit and stand around at CES. Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking
This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offered few surprises, giving reporters time to write interesting offbeat coverage. Stars in the firmament of boredom included Mat Honan, Brian Lam, and the marvelous CESTrailer Twitter account.
Every year, however, readers ask about the nitty-gritty details of the show, beyond the gadgets but short of the existential despair. Having not attended this year and thereby being free of fresh scars, I thought I'd have a stab at describing the mundane details of how it goes.
If nothing else, you won't be curious anymore.
CES is 100,000 anxious people pacing around Vegas in January, looking at electronics that are mostly under glass; attending meetings; and not getting enough done. Finding something to write about in The Forest of Televisions often seems impossible, but there are always gems to be found, deals to be cut, and copy desks to be fed. So off we go, every year.
If you're attending CES, you're probably in the trade or the press. It's wildly expensive to attend otherwise--a policy that keeps things focused and sane. The show's busy enough without tourists getting in the way.
Gaining access free of charge is easy if you've written about tech online or in print. Send off your credentials and some links to your work, and you will be rewarded with a packet of official literature; a map; and a cardboard show pass attached to a perforated stack of meal tickets. These may be redeemed for unappetizing salads and cellophane-wrapped rubbery buns.
If you write for an established media outlet or tell them you are an editor, you should get a "Press" pass. If you don't, you may get a "Blogger" pass instead, assuming they're still making the distinction. Bloggers got a different private lounge, rumored to contain cooler furniture and worse food.
CES enters one's awareness sometime in early fall, when spam from the organizers and exhibitors starts turning up. Arrangements for travel and hotels are best made at this time. Given that CES is in January, you might be tempted to think that prices would be cheap. They aren't! The hotels know you are coming and up the rates accordingly.
CES occurs mostly in the Venetian-Sands hotel complex and the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Venetian is the best home-base for the show, but it's pricey. Treasure Island, opposite the Venetian, is cheaper and also well-located. It's tempting to go to the hotels adjacent to the Convention Center, such as the Las Vegas Hilton or the Renaissance, but they're poorly located for anything else you might be doing on the Strip.
For reporters, the secret is to get as much "reporting" done as possible before the show begins, freeing oneself to look for interesting stories at the event itself. Many exhibitors are happy to provide details of new products under embargo, meaning that you agree not to publish until a certain date or until it becomes public knowledge some other way. You won't learn about everything, of course—everyone likes surprises!—but this is where you find out about 35 of the 36 cameras that Fujifilm will announce.
One trap for the enterprising writer is meetings. Exhibitors' PR people will try to rope you into them in the lead-up to the show. Refuse. Never agree to do meetings unless you know exactly what you're getting and can't get it any other way.
This is because it takes forever to get anywhere at CES: even a 10 minute handshake-'n'-coffee may require an hour of walking around Las Vegas's nightmare maze of interconnected back-halls. This wipes out essential time better spent on the show floor, writing, drinking or gambling. If you go to CES for the meetings, don't go there for anything else.
DAY 0: PRESS CONFERENCES AND PRIVATE EVENTS
Smart writers arrive in Vegas a couple of days before the show starts, to ensure they're settled in and set up in time for Press Day. If you're with a big crew, you might have access to a trailer or communications room. There is Wi-Fi everywhere, but none of it works. The only reliable free internet is in the press and blogger lounges.
In any case, bring 3G/4G internet with you. Portable hotspots are neat, but the airwaves are crowded: USB dongles might work better. You know the guy who sits there scoffing at the broken Wi-Fi in a press conference with 2000 other laptop-toting reporters? Don't be that guy. That guy's a twerp.
The first order of business is to get an official lanyard, which identifies you as a legitimate attendee. These are dispensed from a row of stalls found in a particularly confusing expanse of the Venetian-Sands complex, to get you in the mood. Once secured, you may enter the private lounge for your class of journalist; therein awaits your official CES swag bag, which may include a t-shirt on a good year.
Press Day is the day before CES, and this is when most of the big companies do their main product announcements. If you spend only one day in Vegas, you'd do well to skip the show proper and hit these instead.
Most of these conferences are held in the Venetian's huge 3D grid of banquet halls. It's a bit like the movie "Cube", but with burgundy nylon carpet and hollow corinthian columns instead of color-coded deathtraps. Sony typically does theirs at some inconvenient offsite location.
At the outset of CES, private parties such as Showstoppers and Pepcom are must-see affairs. Like mini-CESes in themselves, these are invitation-only affairs where a smaller selection of companies let the press get more hands-on. Each usually occupies a single hall, with loads of free booze and food, and a more relaxed atmosphere. As these are unofficial peripheral events, they may take place somewhere strange and unsettling, such as The Wynn.
THE KEYNOTE SPEECHES
At the end of Press Day, CES is officially launched with an evening keynote speech delivered by whoever is in charge of Microsoft (2013 Update: not anymore!). This used to be Bill Gates, but is now Steve Ballmer. Ballmer is effusive but boring. As a result, news reporters often write about the circumstances of his speech, or even its mere existence as a kind of annual industry punctuation mark, rather than its content. It's a bit like the Pope appearing at the balcony, if you imagine that the pope suffers from explosive hyperhydrosis and announces Tablet PCs.
There will be other keynotes spread through the week. Sony's brass can be relied upon to announce products and cavort with celebrities, but don't go to anything else unless you really like CPU power consumption charts.
This year is apparently Microsoft's last CES, due to a falling-out between the two organizations.
DAY 1: THE EVENT ITSELF
So you've attended the the Venetian-Sands's official pre-show press conferences and one of the splashy evening private events. You've endured Ballmer's keynote, drunk
Sir Howard's Kaz Hirai's brandy, and gotten a good night's sleep. It's time to head to the main event and its four enormous exhibition halls.
It's a mile east of the Strip, but getting there is easy thanks to the many free shuttles to and from each venue and the main hotels. But it's also slow, thanks to the long queues. Cabs are faster, but expensive, and the queues aren't any better. No, don't take a car to Vegas. Christ.
Even with road transport taken care of, getting around CES means long walks; a hidden time-tax ready to ruin even the most carefully-prepared schedule.
The central hall houses the most prestigious companies' booths. Cellphones, televisions, computers and other mainstays of techno-shopping are to be found here. The installations are often so huge as to be buildings inside the building; Panasonic likes to cut the hall in half with a 20,000 sq. ft. fortress.
It's crowded and noisy. Performers in bizarre costumes and orange-skinned marketing men loop through shows and presentations all day long. Clusters of hastily-assembled privacy cubicles (for the meetings!) wobble upon an ocean of carpet.
Adjacent to the central hall is the convention center's atrium, so obscenely busy that it typically ends up as the most widely-used photo in mainstream coverage. Dozens of news-media and private exhibitor rooms can be reached from here, down hallways and up staircases. Outside form the queues, hundreds of feet long, for taxis and shuttle buses.
From here, one may head into the slightly smaller North Hall, full of new automotive tech. This ranges from dashboard computers to self-driving technology, but mostly concern the latest advances in subwoofing.
A troop south from the atrium or central hall leads to another reporter/blogger lounge area, then to the inexpressibly vast South Hall.
Spread over two levels, this is where the second-tier firms exhibit, and it's oftentimes the most interesting part of the show. Oddities like obscure game controllers, boutique PC cases and audiophile-grade stereo equipment rest on reasonably-sized booths, laid out in neat rows, in contrast to the Central Hall's unbridled corporate egomania.
Concessions stands are in evidence at CES, but only a fool uses them. The queues are too long, and it's better to snack on the free food in the press and blogger lounges. Grab a big breakfast at your hotel before you set out.
Most PR people are helpful and nonintrusive, handing out literature and offering to fill your schedule with meetings with available executives. At large booths, there'll be reception desks to keep it all running smoothly; branded candy, pens and USB thumbdrives are everywhere for the taking.
At the far end of the South Hall (or back at the Venetian-Sands in yet another giant hall, if demand necessitates) is the final major attraction: a zone for companies in faraway places looking to attract western importers.
Away from the bustle and the more expensively-appointed booths, CES can take on a dreamlike quality. Here are walls of backlit electronic landscape paintings, and walnut burl-print iPhone cases arrayed by the hundred on pegboard screens. Here are mysteriously abandoned booths displaying nothing but the name of a company in Shenzhen.
Once, I saw a yuppie type angrily dressing down a lone foreign exhibitor here, for the crime of showing him products that he did not want to order. He stormed off, leaving the exhibitor in tears.
Another curiosity of CES is the abundance of scantily-dressed "booth babes". Challenged by a BBC reporter, CES's rather unchivalrous chief executive Gary Shapiro said that claims of sexism are "cute but it's frankly irrelevant". He did say it's a dying trend, though, so perhaps the show will one day be more welcoming to women.
The AVN Adult Entertainment Expo used to be attached to CES, but now occurs on different dates; stopping the CES hordes from overwhelming the relatively small and culturally-unique event seemed to be a major problem in recent years.
Photography is officially permitted, but some exhibitors take a dim view of it--especially merch licensees worried about their latest designs being cloned at light-speed.
When dusk falls, the parties begin, private events where the bars are open and the doors tightly shut. For reporters, these may be the only chance to interview key executives or check out new gadgets away from the show-floor hubbub. For the business people, a lot of CES wheeling and dealing happens likewise, the old-fashioned way, over blackjack and booze, and behind closed doors.
DAY 2: NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS
Day 2 of the show proper is the last day anyone really needs to be at CES, unless one absolutely must blog every last thing there. Mainstream news outlets will have caught up on anything important, so longer, more considered pieces should be on the cards. If you wanted to do meetings, this is when you should have scheduled them: after the hectic launch day, but before the free candy runs out.
If you came with a team, Day 2 is a good time to have some fun and get to know each other. If you're in charge of a team, this is a good day to show your appreciation by feeding them properly.
If you're still knocking around on Day 3, you're totally just taking a vacation. CES is a lot of fun if you hit it with the right attitude and make sure you have time to enjoy whatever you enjoy in Vegas.
If you simply don't like Vegas, though, CES is about as close to hell as life gets in the absence of physical pain.
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