CES tips for rookie reporters, 2022 edition

This January will mark my 25th trek to CES and will be my 26th CES overall, counting the 2021 virtual edition of the show. A quarter of a century of CES practice may not have taught me how to escape having this pilgrimage to Las Vegas tear me away from my family right after the holidays, but it has given me some insight into making the gadget gathering produced by the Arlington-based Consumer Technology Association a little more efficient, productive and cheaper.

(You may have read an earlier version of this guide, but I somehow haven’t revisited this topic since 2013.)

Planning

The most annoying part of this event happens weeks before you board a plane to Vegas, when a non-trivial fraction of the tech publicists in the universe start asking if they can book a meeting with you and their client at the show. Be exceedingly conservative in accepting those invitations: You will be late to most CES meetings (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of their own.

(After getting the 50th “are you going to CES?” e-mail, you may also fairly wonder: If the time and attention of tech journalists is really this valuable, when does our compensation better reflect that?)

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung or an LG–when scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars or other shelf-stable sustenance, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a reusable water bottle; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with a generous mobile-hotspot data allocation or a WiFi hotspot); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking; twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger. And tape your business card to it, in case you leave it behind in one of the press rooms.

The West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2022, with the CES logo splashed across its glass facade.

Press conferences and other events 

The first of two media days features a light afternoon lineup of talks, followed by the CES Unveiled reception that may be your first chance in months to say hi to some fellow tech journalists and analysts. The second media day–the day before the show opens, so it’s technically CES Day Zero–consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip.

Unless you get VIP access, you can’t count on getting into every press conference–in the Before Times, the lines outside always stretched on for so long that making it into one press conference required skipping the one before it. And except for Sony’s presser at its show-floor exhibit, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware and may not even allow for Q&A with the people involved.

CES features a long line of keynotes, starting on the evening of press-conference day. They can be entertaining but often don’t get beyond being a live sales pitch for a company; you’re more likely to find news in the even longer lineup of issue-specific panels.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew puts together my trips to IFA in Berlin, subsidized by that German tech show.) Each provides access to a ballroom of vendors showing off their wares, a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both of these essential services can be in pitifully short supply around CES, so it’s good that laptop and phone battery lives have improved greatly in recent years. You should still follow the “always be charging” rule and plug in all your devices anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. The press rooms should have plenty of power strips, but that doesn’t mean one at your table will have an outlet free; if you have a compact travel power strip (my friend Rakesh Agrawal recently shared some useful advice about that in his newsletter), please bring it.

Wireless connectivity, however, hasn’t advanced as much at CES. The show has yet to feature free, event-wide WiFi, and even when individual events and venues offer WiFi you can’t expect it to work all that well. Cell coverage itself may be less than reliable in the middle of large, packed convention-center halls. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–171,268 attendees in 2020–and that you should opt for a wired connection if you can find one in a press room.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to the majority of CES exhibitors, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers, and it’s grown substantially since CES 2020.

The LVCC’s Central Hall, with 623,058 square feet of exhibit space and the home of the big-ticket electronics vendors exhibit, can eat up a day by itself, and the new, 601,960-sf West Hall can be as much of a timesuck with all of the automotive and transportation exhibits there. You shouldn’t need as much time to walk the North Hall (409,177 sf) and South Hall (908,496 sf over two levels), each home to a grab-bag of health-tech, telecom, drone and robotics vendors, among others. And don’t forget the parking lot in front of LVCC Central, which this January featured such once-unlikely CES exhibitors as John Deere and Sierra Space–the product of CTA’s efforts to broaden this show beyond consumer electronics.

Budget at least 10 minutes to get from one of these halls to another, 30 to hustle from one end to the other. The free-for-now Vegas Loop–a narrow tunnel with stops at the South, Central and West Halls traversed by Teslas driven by some of the most sociable people in Vegas–can shorten that end-to-end ride, but I’m not sure it will scale to meet CES-level demand.

But wait, there’s more! The Venetian (formerly Sands) Expo about a mile and a half southwest of the LVCC hosts most of the smart-home vendors on its main level, while its lower level hides Eureka Park, a fabulously weird space teeming with startups from around the world. A few companies also set up separate exhibits in restaurants and bars in the Venetian itself.

Many companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

The view from the front passenger seat of a Tesla as it enters the Vegas Loop tunnel from the aboveground LVCC West station.

Getting around

In a word: ugh. CES has a long history of grinding the streets of Vegas to a halt, with the Venetian Expo-LVCC shuttle bus often taking well over half an hour because Clark County apparently has never heard of bus-only lanes. (CES 2022, with attendance depressed by the pandemic to about 44,000, felt blissfully efficient in comparison.) The show shuttle buses also routinely suffered from excruciatingly long lines to board, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show.

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic, but at pre-pandemic CESes I often had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management not tolerating D.C.-level crush loads on board. And the monorail conspicuously fails to stop at the Venetian Expo–a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Linq station and walk north.

Your ride-hailing options are also iffy. Lyft and Uber are no longer the great bargain they used to be, and you may find that the pickup/dropoff zone for them at a CES venue is not as convenient as the taxi stand. Vegas taxis, meanwhile, continue to rip off passengers with a $3 credit-card fee, so have cash handy if you’ll use one.

Walking is definitely an option between places on the Strip, but it’s also your fastest way to get from the LVCC to evening events at the Wynn or the Encore even if that mile-and-change walk may remind you of how little Vegas values pedestrians off the Strip.

Don’t overlook transit. Yes, even in Vegas. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada’s bus network includes frequent service on the Strip that shouldn’t be much slower than any other vehicle stuck in traffic. The RTC’s buses can also work for getting to and from Harry Reid International Airport, provided you time your schedule to match their lengthy headways. The rideRTC app isn’t great, but it does beat waiting for a line at a ticket-vending machine or fumbling with cash.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.