Does the world still want CES?
And is the era of gigantic conferences over?
CES 2022, “the world’s largest electronics show.” is barreling ahead this week with a shortened schedule, high-profile brands bailing out (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Panasonic, Mercedes, Meta, Twitter, to name a few), and about a third of the attendees (50-60k).
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association (the parent organization), has been in salvage mode, and in high form, on LinkedIn and in media statements: “Certainly, it will be different from previous years. It may be messy. But innovation is messy. It is risky and uncomfortable. I view CES as representing the best of our unique American history — a place where those who are different and have big ideas can gather, where success is not based on class or religion or anything but the strength of an idea.”
Indeed. But COVID has forced a larger reckoning in the tech community with these types of mega-events. Do they need to be so big, are they worth the money, and do we actually like going to them?
First, some numbers
At peak pre-COVID numbers, CES (which used to stand for Consumer Electronics Show but now just exist as symbolic brand letters) ran around 180,000 people, just under 3 million square feet, and somewhere between 4,000-5,000 companies. It sprawled out from the Las Vegas Convention Center like a giant, buzzing octopus over the city, taking over hotel exhibit spaces, guest suites, restaurants, and clubs … almost everything Strip-adjacent gets consumed by it.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority puts the lost economic impact of the 2021 conference at $291.4 million. The actual profit funneled back to the Consumer Technology Association is murkier, but not insubstantial. The CTA’s 2019 revenue hit around $138 million.
The show had been an important industry event since the 1960s, running twice a year until the 1990s, put on mainly for journalists to breathlessly report the next tech miracles and retailers to preview (and bulk order) the next big home entertainment devices from brands and wholesalers.
In the mid-90s, though, things changed. The acceleration of personal devices (phones), gaming (the first Madden game was unveiled at the 1991 CES) and home entertainment gear (fueled by CDs and DVDs) accelerated everything. Major news outlets covered the show, and it became the forebear of “commercial as content.” Attendance ballooned way beyond wholesalers and retailers to include anybody with a passing interest. Which, it turns out, was a lot of people.
CES grew to become a catch-all, sort of a barometer of invention, economic health, hype, and appetite for trends. Thus it started serving many interests and became, strangely, like the entertainment monoliths it was helping to destabilize. One big circus for all your gadget desires.
Why does it need to be so big?
Major trade shows thrive under the idea of being a marketplace of ideas. You come to network, see cutting-edge products, go to informative sessions, meet with sellers or buyers. It’s spectacle for spectacles’ sake, providing shiny content in a slow post-holiday news cycle.
The traditional wisdom is that it’s the best way to scale economic opportunity for the organizers (the CTA) and the major players involved. For a company like, say, Bose, you can cast the biggest net, meet the most clients, get the most purchasing commitments all in one shot versus piecemeal meetings throughout the year.
At least that’s how it used to be. Apple famously pulled out of CES to do their own thing 30 years ago, and ever since, companies have wrestled with the proposition of putting their cash and labor into dedicated events and owning their own dates on the calendar.
If you go to CES for the full experience, you’re essentially living inside a series of commercials, all day, every day. Even the session agenda skews that way, packed with panelists and speakers in monologue/dialogue about a future they absolutely understand and most certainly requires their exact products and services.
This presentational format … anticipatory buzz, flashy unveiling, confident predictions about how this one thing will change everything … has been copied and refined so much over the years by seemingly everyone with a chip in their product. There’s become an inevitable feeling of disappointment mixed in with the good (see Apple’s endless schedule of unveilings), not because the products themselves are bad or misleading, but because we can only take so much out of a firehose of marketing promises until getting worn down.
On the exhibit floor, the wonder of seeing a massive display or a new AI-infused gizmo is mediated by the feeling that you are an easily-jostled, somewhat numb sheep. Waiting, moving, viewing, repeat.
Of course, seeing all this stuff live, at such scale, offers something else: the feeling of legitimacy. I was there, part of it, saw it with my own eyes. Just as SXSW conveyed a certain kind of social cred in media and tech (my brand matters to the kids), the very act of attending CES offers “realness.”
Tastes have changed
The draw of the Vegas trade show experience is different now than it was 25 years ago. The incentives … the restaurants, the gambling, the spectacle, the compelling yet vague freedoms offered … are still potent but diminished draws. Why?
Part of it is how we’ve reframed our ideas of a “good time.” Like the rest of consumer culture, it’s no longer an unquestioned monolith. Maybe 5 straight days shuttling around interiors is not where we are anymore. Long hours, long cab lines, long bus lines, long waits for restaurants. Trudging through the sameness of bag checks, badge checks, swag pickups, casino noise, coffee breaks. Is this the best, most gratifying use of our professional time?
Then there’s the money. Flights, hotels, cabs, meals … it’s easy to drop $2-4k just to go check it out for a couple of days as an attendee, even with the relatively modest ticket prices. If you’re exhibiting, that’s where we start playing for real money depending on how big the booth is and how many people you’re sending. It’s easy to drop tens of thousands on even a modest booth experience, and once you throw in advertising or sponsored parties, double that (at least).
Even when we get “past” COVID, health safety will continue to be a dominant part of our lives, which puts an intense amount of pressure on events of this size to guarantee safety and enforce precautions.
Events like CES are almost designed to be super-spreaders: a global attendee pool traveling primarily by plane then gatherings in tight quarters and breathing recycled air. It costs a ton of money to ship items to and from Vegas, and requires a sea of fuel for trucks, planes, and cargo vessels to do it.
Not to mention this is all a tremendous suck of water and electricity from an impossibly fragile urban environment that already famously uses a lot of water and electricity.
What would we rather be doing?
I actually really like conferences, so this is more a question of the quality of the experience. I’d rather spend 2 days someplace interesting, with a concentrated group, where there’s a real chance to connect to people and to get hands-on with new tech. Something, ugh, bespoke, with a less corporate vibe, less bro-y feel, less presentational.
That’s as an attendee with no sales priorities at stake. I’m sure it’s different for major brands. Or is it? If being part of the spectacle is one of the primary goals of this thing, I’ve never understood how companies, even big companies, stand out. Perhaps by focusing more on their “guest experiences” as they do on their booth design, with more creature comforts and playtime with the new toys. Or thinking of attendees more as ticket holders to a well-designed (and kid-free) theme park.
One path for events like CES is dramatically cutting down the size of the show, halving it (at least), and truly focusing on media and buyers. Make it exclusive again. Consider going back to a two-show schedule, summer and winter, which eases the gargantuan attendance numbers and offers two windows for introducing products. Given the year-round cycle and speed of product development and release, isn’t that where we are anyway?
Or, similar to SXSW, split the conference into a number of smaller shows under a large umbrella over a two-week period. Pods of different interests, contained in different parts of town. Attendees could buy a universal badge covering everything, or opt to go to vertical, smaller shows more dedicated to their interests. New Technology, Audio Equipment, or Gaming could all be compartmentalized (more than they are currently) in separate, more manageable, more accessible venues.
Something that won’t happen? Immediate extinction. CES will hang on to the more-is-more business model as long as it can, following the model of broadcast television, film studios, bookstore chains, and other content giants who once owned an outrageous slice of the market, until they didn’t. Going smaller, safer, more curated, and more personal is seen as a retreat. It’s not.