Unless you’re employed by the consumer electronics industry, you are refused admission to the Consumer Electronics Show, held every January in Las Vegas. It is resolutely and emphatically “trade-only”, as we found out at Hi-Fi News many years ago when we wanted to provide an all-expenses-paid trip to CES as a competition prize for a lucky reader-plus-one. The CES organizers would allow no exceptions, not even a lone audiophile and guest.
Perhaps that’s as it should be, to enable the exhibitors to achieve what they hope to do, in under a week and at great expense, without distractions. No offense to civilians, but what the exhibitors want to accomplish includes, in descending levels of importance, to (1) take firm orders from their foreign distributors, (2) take firm orders from the dwindling ranks of US retailers, and (3) garner as much free publicity from the press (print, broadcast and on-line) as they possibly can. What they do not need are legions of tire-kickers and brochure collectors crowding their already-cramped rooms.
One could argue, however, that any “civilian” audiophile attending CES would boast two qualities that no sales-hungry manufacturer can ignore. The first is that said audiophile would be an enthusiast par excellence, with enough drive, hunger, enthusiasm, initiative – call it what you will – to brave Las Vegas in January, amidst 130,000-140,000 jaded-yet-professional trade visitors. That’s exactly the kind of tenacity that keeps the high-end alive.
And the other quality? Money. Even if a “civilian” could smuggle himself/herself into CES – and that would take some clever, lateral thinking as security is pretty good – it still means the cost of travel, hotels, food. Yes, it can be done on the cheap, with a shared room at $30-$40 a night and by living on all-you-can-eat buffets at Circus Circus, but that’s strictly for the hardcore. If I do run into a known civilian, he (it’s rarely a female) is probably masquerading as staff at his local hi-fi emporium, or is part of an audiophile society. The former is the easiest disguise to use, and it will earn the individual a trade badge.
Please note that the remarks in this article are not value judgments: not all of those who visit CES in a trade capacity are what one might describe as bursting with professional credentials. With increasing frequency, CES has been co-opted by a corps of bottom-feeders, the bloggers and online habitués with websites like www.imtotallydevoidofanythingtosayandamborderlineilliteratebutiownamouseandamacairandthisdomainname.com, who survive on the hors d’oeuvres at press events and the free food in the CES press room.
Note, when discussing the desire for “normal” audiophiles to attend CES, that I am referring only to the high-end audio element of the show, now relegated to the Venetian Casino/Hotel. The “big boys,” the likes of Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, LG, et al, slug it out in the massive Convention Center, and as far as they’re concerned, high-end audio is an irrelevant a pimple on CES’ butt. It cuts both ways: the few audiophiles dying to get into the Venetian wouldn’t be caught dead drooling over the tablets, iPhone wannabes, and iPod docks that fill said exhibition halls.
But now I ask myself, after three decades of regular show attendance, should CES – or, at least, the Venetian – allow in a limited number of civilians? T.H.E. Show, just a few hotels along from the Venetian, allows non-trade visitors, but then T.H.E. Show is hardly crowded. Please accept that I’m not being bitchy, having come to terms with T.H.E. Show despite my once-held belief that “outboarders” are the hi-fi equivalent of the fish who hang around sharks to eat their crumbs. It’s just that the most prestigious and highly-visible names in high-end audio exhibit at the official CES venue, the aforementioned Venetian. Equally, some rebel brands choose neither CES nor T.H.E. Show, exhibiting as “outboarders” in the Mirage or elsewhere.
But back to civilians at the Venetian. Every other high-end show I attend, including the wonderful Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and those in Milan, Paris, and Munich, survive because of the public. There are no problems, no conflicts – and both Milan and Munich are huge shows because of it. What might provide a solution for CES (and I mean, again, only the high-end element) would be the stupidly simple, embarrassingly obvious introduction of a trade-only policy for two days of the show, and two days that allow the public to visit.
I can already hear my colleagues spitting forth comic book expletives of the “What the @?!% does that $*&€#¢* Kessler want to do? Drive us all crazy? Kill off CES?” variety. And part of me can’t believe that I would even entertain the notion of diluting the relatively professional atmosphere of CES with non-trade attendees.
However … I remember being on “the outside looking in,” and how frustrating it was. The car, watch, boat, gun, pen, and other industries find ways to satisfy the public’s craving for seeing the new, talking with non-retailer personnel about something they might purchase, seeing the stuff in person instead of in print or online. It’s not, when you think about it, all-that-unreasonable a gambit for expanding the exposure of our industry to more people.
But let me close with both the primary opposing arguments and a few in support of it. For the former, I agree wholeheartedly with anyone who posits that the only civilian audiophiles who would bother to attend if the public were given access to CES would be “the converted,” the hardcore element that is not in need of convincing. And that is such a truism that it needs no clarification. It’s 100 per cent correct. Another is the usual insurance/security/safety issue, but T.H.E. Show and the others I’ve cited manage it somehow, so it shouldn’t be beyond the capabilities of the CES organizers.
I, however, prefer to look to four supporting notions. The first is that these visitors would provide the most valuable publicity of all, which is word-of-mouth. The second is that a public-allowed policy would create such amazing goodwill that any brands welcoming these visitors, with warmth and respect, would win customers. Third? I sincerely doubt that the numbers of audiophiles prepared to visit CES would be high enough to warrant any concern. And the fourth, most cynically I admit, is that – exactly like any CES attendee except for the press – these public visitors would have to pay an entrance fee that could be shared between CES and the pool of exhibitors.
Viable? Sensible? Desirable? Feasible? I know not the answers. But it sure beats doing nothing about the parlous state of the high-end audio industry.