How the CES Works

I have been covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for years and it feels like there are fewer surprises at the show each passing year. I am hoping there will be some cool unexpected things at the show this year, but it’s hard to get excited about the prospect. One of the reasons for the lack of surprise about things shown at the CES has to do with the way the entire show process unfolds. Those not involved in covering the show are not familiar with how things work so this will give you an idea how the CES happens for those of us who cover it.

The activity starts well over a month before the show, with companies beginning to reach out to those registered to cover the show. The emails start flying first, with dozens of emails a day hitting my inbox claiming that their company’s next big thing (NBT) is the best thing since sliced bread. These emails start trickling in at first, building to a veritable avalanche of email by showtime. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you I get hundreds of emails a day from companies exhibiting at the CES, and from the PR firms handling them.

The big players that typically announce many new products at the show begin having pre-CES online press conferences a few weeks before the show proper. The companies literally present everything that will be announced at the show, under NDA to protect the “surprise” of the announcements. I am not kidding, they present everything in detail that they will be unveiling at the CES. These conferences are accompanied by photos and full spec sheets for all products being announced. It is not uncommon to have all of a company’s CES information a full month before the show.

The two weeks prior to the show the emails take on an urgent air, with invitations to private meetings flooding my inbox. There are invitations to private events, parties and “one-on-one” interviews with CEOs. All of them are vying for just an hour of my time during the CES week.

The last two weeks before the show sees the phone calls start in earnest. We have to give a phone number when we register as press for the CES, and the companies start calling like crazy. I have received 10 — 20 calls in a given hour, and average over 50 calls a day. Thank goodness for Google Voice as I have it grabbing all of my calls these days to keep my sanity.

Once CES week rolls around is when the real fun starts. The exhibition runs from Thursday – Sunday, but the press events start the Tuesday before. A few companies hold press conferences starting at midday on Tuesday, and the CES Unveiled “pre-show” event is Tuesday night. This event will have about 100 companies showing the new stuff they are most proud of, and it will be wall-to-wall bodies.

The next day, Wednesday, is the official Press Day for the CES. The major companies at the exhibit hold press events to announce new products, and they are held all day. Most of them are in the Venetian Hotel, but some are at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). Others are held at other hotel venues around town, and it can be a real struggle to schedule time to see all of the press events of interest. The CES kick-off keynote address, this year by Microsoft (s msft) CEO Steve Ballmer, is held Wednesday evening as it is the day before the exhibition actually opens. Another pre-show event, Digital Experience, is also held that evening after the keynote. It’s like the CES Unveiled, in that a bunch of companies are in one room showing off their wares. Many of the companies exhibiting will be the ones having exhibited at the Unveiled show.

Thursday is the official opening of the CES proper, and it covers two convention centers. The LVCC is the biggest, and spans three huge halls and two stories. You can spend all four days of the show trying to visit everything. The show also laps over into the Sands Convention Center, which is attached to the Venetian Hotel. It is smaller and tends to attract the smaller companies with some off-the-wall products. Shuttle buses run back and forth between the two venues to help cover such a large territory.

During the day on Thursday there are a number of keynote addresses by executives from companies such as Intel and Nokia. All keynotes are being held this year at the Hilton Hotel next door to the LVCC, rather than at the Venetian Hotel as in years past. This will make it a bit of a logistical problem getting back and forth for keynotes. Thursday evening there is another off-site event, Showstoppers, that is held at the Wynn Hotel. It is similar to the CES Unveiled and Digital Experience events, with different companies exhibiting.

Thursday through Sunday the exhibition will run, and typically I will spend all of each day in one of the venues. This gives me the chance to see as much as possible, and I will have scheduled appointments with many companies each day. I will meet with some larger companies as needed, and these may be at other hotels in town. Some companies take big suites to provide better venues for hands-on sessions, and these are often where I will shoot videos of new products.

Both the LVCC and the Sands Convention Center have press rooms and blogger lounges for those of us covering the show. Most of the blogging will be done in one of these rooms. There are also interview rooms available that we sometimes use for shooting video interviews and audio podcasts. All of these facilities are great, with good Wi-Fi and snacks for those moments we actually have time to grab them. We get to see many friends in these rooms, which is easily my favorite part of the entire week.

Covering such a vast event is a lot of fun, and is easily my busiest week of the entire year. It is a tremendous amount of work, but it’s great to see friends that I don’t see anywhere else. There will be the odd unexpected product that is great to see, and those are real gems to find. The lack of surprises at the show have more to do with being exposed to products prior to the show, than any shortage of product announcements at the show proper. The week of the show does provide great opportunities to spend hands-on time with dozens of cool gadgets, and that is worth all the tea in China to a geek like me. In spite of being such a huge job, and the fact that I will be totally exhausted by week’s end, it is one of my favorite weeks of the year. I can’t wait to get there.