Why do we go to these shows?

Posted: 01.30.06

To read the press and speak with industry leaders you'd think the whole world revolved around trade shows. They plan product launches, special events, and announcements, and even small stage shows for them. To give a keynote speech is considered a major PR coup by the marketing people, and the executives who give such speeches, with few exceptions, do it under duress.

And what about those keynote speeches? Whether they are the two-hour marathon Jobs speech/teach/preach megatalks, or the stupid let's do silly things our kids would do so people will think we're cool Gates and Ballmer routines (guys, you're over 50 now, enough is enough), or the like-watching-paint-dry I'd-rather-be-in-the-dentist's-office speech of most other speakers, almost none of them convey any real information and are at best sound bites for a overhyped press. Once in a while there are indications of a change in policy or a hint of a new product, but mostly they're thinly veiled product pitches and stock share price hype. Do we need this?

Well, if attendance at the trade shows and the keynotes is any measure, not only do we need it, we're so totally hooked, we can't get enough. There was standing room only (SRO) at Gates's talk, and the press was told to be in their seats 45 minutes before Jobs's speakathon—45 minutes plus two hours, that's really hard on a bladder that has just been topped off with enough coffee to wake you up at that time of day. But it too was filled to overflowing with Kool-AidÐdrinking sneaker-wearing devotees of anything Apple, many of them in the back on small prayer rugs bowing and chanting before the alter of Apple.

Meanwhile, at the trade shows and conferences, the scene is bizarre and approaching a bazaar. The booths or stands of the exhibitors have expanded from booth babes to circus acts, flamenco dancing, and acrobatics. At the car section of CES, the booth babes' physical endowments were only outdone by their tattoos—can't wait to see what surprises E3 holds for us.

Then there's the issue of going, and moving around while we are there. Over 150,000 people came to CES this year. Stop and think about that about that for a moment. In addition to the 150,000 ÒofficialÓ visitors to the show, there were another 30,000 support people brought in: taxi and bus drivers, waiters and waitresses, cops, girls (it is Las Vegas), and dealers (of all varieties) and store sales people. (The Adult Entertainment Expo only brings in 30,000 visitors.) The official population of Las Vegas is 376,000, so when CES rolls into town it increases the population by 50%. Try to imagine your town suddenly invaded by 50% strangers. Of course, Hannover, Germany, does better than that. Hannover has a native population of 516,000 and CeBit 2005 brought in 510,000 visitors—so that's a doubling of the population, and yet Hannover takes it in stride and functions well with adequate taxis, trams, and restaurants, if not hotels. (We've been told the home owners who rent out their places for CeBit have repeatedly vetoed any expansion of hotel space.)

But Las Vegas just doesn't get it. The city has no concept of traffic management, and if you dare leave the convention campus, be prepared for an hour's trip. And the congestion at the airport, both arriving and leaving, is the worst in the world. Every year the city seems surprised that all those people came to town, and then later want to leave. The security line at the airport continues to be an endurance test. Las Vegas should have two airports, one for CES and one for the rest of the year. And how's this for a wild idea—more than one taxi pickup place! Imagine that.

So why do we do it? Why did 150,000 people, 15% of them (23,000) from 110 countries, come to see the 2,500 exhibitors and the star-studded array of 350 industry luminaries serving as keynoters, Industry Insiders, and conference speakers? Well, one reason is CEA reported consumer electronics sales jumped 11% in 2005 and hit $125.7 billion, with sales of consumer electronics projected to reach a new high of $135.4 billion in 2006, and lots of folks, like the 40,000 registered senior level executives who attended, want a piece of that pie.

CES is like a giant watering hole, where all the animals come together. CE dealers meet manufacturer and sales people, manufacturers meet government and policy people, tutorials are given and consumed, deals are struck, and yeah, dealers meet dealers.

Also this year was more upbeat than in the past. Everyone seemed to think the world economy would keep growing, that despite national and manmade disasters and wars, the world was OK for the most part and consumption and production were going on unabated.

In one sense you can look at the mega-events like CES and CeBit as bellwethers of international mood. And for that reason alone it's almost worth the pain of going. But everyone we spoke to (a very unscientific study) was positive about the show, said they did business, saw a lot of people they might not have other-wise seen, and even had a good time. The weather was certainly nice, and we went to some really great (albeit expensive) restaurants.

Next year will be harder. For one thing Apple has chosen to challenge CES for the press and attendees' time and attention and has booked Macworld on the exact same days as CES: January 8 to 11/12. Given Apple's presence in the living room, this seems like a stupid idea to me. They should be an exhibitor at CES, not a competitor. Apple might be the loser in this battle like they were in 2002 when they were on top of the CES time. But this time Apple is too big a deal to ignore, so most likely Macworld will drain off some of the press from CES.