CES: behind the scenes

On Boxing Day, while the UK was polishing off the last of the Christmas cake and settling down in front of The Great Escape, another epic operation was getting underway. Except this time it wasn’t Hollywood fiction, it was about 270 miles away in the ever-restless city of Las Vegas.

For the organisers and hundreds of exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Boxing Day was moving-in day. Almost a fortnight before the show opened its doors to more than 120,000 visitors, the first crates containing the exhibitor stands started to arrive on the showfloor, kick-starting the frantic preparation that goes towards creating the greatest technology show on earth.

There are only about three cities in the US that could hold a convention of that size

This is the behind-the-scenes story of CES: the planning, horse-trading and sheer amount of money that’s thrown at creating an extraordinary exhibition that lasts only four days. It’s also the story of the visitors, the journalists and the city that help make it the unmissable event in the tech diary every year.

Super-sized show

It’s difficult to describe the sheer enormity of CES to those who’ve never made the new year tech pilgrimage to Las Vegas. The show is hosted across two venues: the ridiculously opulent Venetian hotel (complete with its own indoor canals and gondolas) and the colossal Las Vegas Convention Center. The conference rooms at the Venetian will, uncomfortably, hold hundreds of journalists for a press conference; the Center is effectively five aircraft-hanger-sized halls stitched together. It takes 15 minutes just to walk briskly from one end of the show to the other.

What’s on display? Practically anything that can be associated with an electrical current. Aside from the barrage of laptops, smartphones, screens, cameras and other gadgets that would pique the interest of PC Pro readers, there are flying toys, infrared massage kits, crash helmet cams, camouflaged solar panels, parental control software being endorsed in person by porn star Ron Jeremy… if someone’s thought of it, there’s a stand selling it at CES.

A year in the making

A show of such epic proportions requires an extraordinary amount of planning. “We start looking at an upcoming show about 14 months ahead,” said Karen Chupka, senior vice president of events at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which organises the show. The CEA doesn’t only have to sort out the showfloor: it has to bring an entire city into line, including thousands of hotel rooms, transport links and policing.

3D television“There are only about three cities in the US that could hold a convention of that size,” Chupka claimed, when asked why the CEA dragged attendees from 140 different countries to the middle of the Nevada desert. Las Vegas is also the city with the most hotel rooms, restaurants and round-the-clock entertainment.

Yet Las Vegas and technology shows have always had an uneasy relationship. Vegas is designed to shake money out of gamblers’ wallets from the moment they walk into the marbled lobby of their hotel, which is why hotel rooms are comparably cheap – the city will make the money back from the slot machines and casino tables. It isn’t quite the same when the techies are in town. If a cabbie picks up a lucky gambler he’s likely to get a $50 tip; if he picks up a CES attendee, he’s likely to get a tip on which smartphone to buy next.

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