Wandering past restaurants and bars in a series of casinos this week has stirred up the usual weird Vegas memories for me: not of great meals or fun nights out with friends, but of the receptions and dinners that CES exhibitors have staged at these establishments.
And now that I’ve covered CES in person for 25 years–every iteration of the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show from 1998 on, minus 2021’s pandemic-enforced virtual edition–there are quite a few of those memories banked in a corner of my brain that I could probably put to a higher and better use.
Semi-lavish evenings on the dime of one company or another haven’t changed since that first CES trip, but the show itself has expanded and evolved considerably.
As in, there’s a reason the Consumer Technology Association–formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association–rebranded this event from “Consumer Electronics Show” to just “CES.” A convention that used to be built around home audio and video now covers everything from smart-home gadgets to autonomous vehicles; at this year’s CES, that last category included a gigantic Caterpillar dump truck.
The space taken up by CES has grown as well, just not quite as much. The Las Vegas Convention Center has sprouted a few extensions and then, two years ago, an additional hall that by itself is big enough to host lesser conferences.
Meanwhile, the routine of CES journalism is unrecognizable compared to the placid pace I enjoyed 25 years ago, when I recall filing all of one story from the show–via dialup modem. I still have things fairly easy (I’ve never written for any place expecting a dozen posts a day during the show or had to stay up late editing video), but this week once again reminded me how much writing time can eat into note-taking time.
Other parts of the CES existence, however, might not seem that different to 1998 me.
Getting around Vegas remains a huge pain. The incremental upgrades to transportation since then–a monorail that only connects the back doors of some casinos on one side of the Strip to the convention center, the belated arrival of Uber and Lyft, the Vegas Loop that offers an underground Tesla shortcut between parts of the convention center–have still left most CES traffic on roads that can’t accommodate it.
On a more positive note, the utility of an industry-wide gathering like CES has survived repeated predictions of this event’s obsolescence. It turns out that the vast majority of companies in the tech business cannot count on staging their own events and expecting everybody else to show up. And all of the other companies and people that come here to do business would struggle to strike those deals if so many other like-minded organizations and individuals were not in the same crowded space at the same overscheduled time.
I include myself in that last bit. Especially since going freelance in 2011–as in, about halfway through my CES tenure–I’ve found that my greatest return on the investment in time and money I make every year here starts with the connections I make those few days in Vegas.
Finally, the CES schedule hasn’t budged over the past 25 years. With remorseless regularity, it tears me away from family just days after the start of a new year, then re-connects me with industry friends, immerses me in what’s new in the tech business, and then leaves me to look at a rest of the year in which every other event seems easy. And that’s why I know exactly where I’m going to be next January.