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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.