Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas

Written by Bill Leebens

Here’s Leebens’ Law of Life: Things Change.

Period. THAT’S IT. You either adapt to the situation, or you violently oppose it. Either one can be difficult.

When the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)  started the show that became CES fifty (!)  years ago, home entertainment products were the focus of the show. Back then, that pretty much meant televisions and hi-fi: hard as it may be to imagine, there were no video recorders, no computers, no big screens/flat screens/projectors. There also was very little trade-news, certainly no instantaneous updates online. Most communications between  manufacturers and their reps or dealers occurred by letter. Y’know, “Snail mail”? That thing?

In today’s environment of worldwide  instantaneous communication at minimal or no cost, it’s difficult to recall the times when there was not only a category known as “long distance” phone calls, but that such calls were considered  prohibitively expensive for all but emergency communications. A phone call late at night often meant that someone had died.

Let’s look at CES now: CEA has changed its name to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), reflecting the organization’s broadened scope, and that of the show. During its lifespan the show has gone from the “Consumer Electronics Show” to “International CES” to simply “CES”. At this point those initials are highly-recognizable, but meaningless—which allows the show to be whatever CTA wants it to be.

Over the last few years, more and more space on the floor of the main convention center (AKA “The Zoo”) has been filled by cars, drones, connected appliances…all the cool things that friends and family see on TV and ask about when they learn I’m going to or returning from CES. The show now averages close to 170,000 attendees from all over the world. It’s one of the largest trade shows in the world, and one of the best-known.

That’s all great. BUT: is it still our show? Is it the place where audio manufacturers show their new products in hopes of attracting new dealers, new distributors, and gaining major media exposure?

I would flatly say no, no, and no. Thanks to the internet, email, Skype, and other such tools, business communication is far better than it used to be. Decades ago, CES was often seen as a new company’s one shot during the year to attract new outlets, get orders, and get press exposure. Many now-familiar audio companies got their big start back in the ’70’s and ’80’s by appearing at CES and going home with a couple dozen dealers and orders for a few hundred units. These days, before a company appears at CES, they’ve already done considerable market development, and usually have decent backing and presence. It pretty much has to be that way: the show is just too expensive, too daunting, for most newbies. Especially for small audio companies. Worldwide, Munich has replaced CES as the main prospecting ground.

Keep in mind, too, where the “High-Performance Audio” (CTA term) exhibits are: nowhere near the main convention center, where all the mainstream media are. Our guys are essentially in an attic, the top floors of the Venetian tower. In order to get there, you have to go through the casino, wind your way into the elevator lines, and…

So, aside from some headphone exhibitors in The Zoo and the small outpost for Hi-Res audio which CTA  oddly located on the main convention center (and not with other audio exhibits), you won’t see mainstream media coverage of audio products. They just don’t get up to the top of the Venetian.

And if they did get up there, what would they find? Back several years ago in my ad-sales days, I had to try to hit every single audio exhibitor at CES and the off-site exhibits at THE Show and the Mirage (or as CEA called them, “parasitic bloodsuckers”). The total number of audio exhibit rooms was close to 400. Two years ago, there were about 200; last year, about 160. This year?

Well, here are some notes I compiled about this year’s show: Traditionally, high-end audio exhibitors have been on Venetian tower floors 29-31, with a few big suites on 34 and 35.
Floor 29 had 72 of 89 rooms filled, and 8 of the 72 were non-audio exhibitors (software, etc.).  Total on 29: 64 audio exhibit rooms.

Floor 30 had 80 of 88 rooms filled—32 of the 80 were non-audio exhibitors including AARP (!), Simmons bedding (!!), Conde Nast publishing, a couple robotics companies, and a bunch
of electronic component vendors. Total on 30: 48 audio exhibit rooms.

Floor 31 had no audio exhibitors other than a couple of DSP OEMs. 0 audio exhibit rooms.

Floor 34 had nothing. 0 audio exhibit rooms.

Floor 35 had McIntosh, YG, Astell & Kern, and 2 rooms of Lamm. Other exhibitors include Chamberlain garage door openers (!!!). Total on 35: 5 audio exhibit rooms.

That’s a total of 117 audio exhibit rooms, less than most regional shows. Keep in mind, also, that quite a few larger exhibitors had multiple rooms—distributor Audio Plus had 6, for example—
so the number of exhibitors is even less than that number.

A lot of familiar brands were missing this year, having been disappointed by the turn-out over the past few years. Based on comments heard at the show and since, next year’s outlook is even gloomier. Several companies that had multiple rooms this year said they wouldn’t be back. The ROI just isn’t there, and with the hassle, aggravation, nightmares of logistics and cost of Vegas during the show, and the very high likelihood of ending up sick….

Don’t get me wrong: I have a very strong sentimental attachment to CES, and have great memories of shows, going back decades. It would perhaps be naive to assume that the show would continue to work miracles for the audio community, given the changes in communication and the way we do business now. I know that in spite of the generally-empty hallways atop the Venetian, there are companies that always do well at the show, and will continue to come back, year after year.

Having said all that, many in our biz are frustrated by years of neglect by CTA and by CES. We know that ours is a specialist biz, likely less than 1/2 of 1% of the nearly $300B annual consumer electronics business in the US. But audio folks pay as much as anyone else, and infiltrating their space with off-the-wall unrelated businesses like mattresses and AARP just shows a lack of concern or support for our sector.

Finally: lest you think I’m Jeremiah, a single voice in the wilderness…well, take a look at these show reports from last year and this year:

Soundstage: The Funeral that was CES 2016 (our boy Ken Kessler);

Soundstage: The Graveyard that was CES 2017;

Stereophile: CES 2017 Shrink Wrap.

I was asked by several folks, “how long do you think CTA will let this go on?”—meaning, the declining presence of audio manufacturers.  I answered, “they’ve already shown that they’ll continue to sell space to anyone they can, whether or not it’s of benefit to us.”

Cynical or not, that’s how I see it.

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