CES Smells Like Teen Comdex

I’m on my way to CES in the morning, and I’m glad I’m going.  Why?  Well apart from seeing old friends and not sleeping, it may just be the last CES ever.

News reports have been pretty bleak, with total exhibition space down from 32 to 29 football fields worth, and attendance predicted to be down as well.  But that’s not why I think CES is done – for me it’s a matter of pattern matching.

It feels like Comdex back in 2000.  I remember the show well – the biggest ever, packed with people, but little more than 3 years later it was dead.  Here are some of the parallels between the last days of Comdex and what feels like the last days of CES.

  1. Attendee Backlash: Back when I first started going in the early nineties, attending Comdex was a much coveted perk.  But just 8 years later it was a chore.  Instead of being jealous of people going to Comdex, it became common to hear, "You lucky dog", shouted at those who managed to avoid going.    Well the same thing has happened with CES.  Back in 1999 CES was a privilege.  Monday at MacWorld a group of us were talking with Cali Lewis of Geekbrief.TV, enviously calling her a lucky dog for avoiding the trip to Vegas this year.

  2. Lack of Innovation:  Comdex was a blast when computers were changing and advancing every year, but by 2002 all we had to look forward to was Windows Vista.  Nuff said.  There’s been little really new at CES over the past few years, leading to a vast wasteland of me too products and gimmicky gadgets.

  3. The Rise of Meeting Spaces:  In the early days of CES and in Comdex, all the action was on the show floor.  But just as with Comdex in 2000, you can now go to CES, see lots of new products, meet all the people you want to see, yet never go within 2 miles of the Las Vegas Convention Center.  More and more companies are opting for suites in the big hotels on the strip, and avoiding the show floor altogether. 

  4. Diminishing Cab Lines: Although it may seem like a lot of people are at CES this year, there are tons of hotel rooms, rental cars and cabs available – at least most times.  I booked a hotel room within 2 blocks of the show yesterday for $80 a night.  The MGM, Palms, Bellagio, Planet Hollywood and many other posh hotels have all been booked by friends and co-workers — within the last 3 days — for under $150 a night.  The $400 a night hotel room, for smart travellers, is a thing of the past.

  5. Extravagant Booths:  I remember back in the waning days of Comdex, booth excess grew to an outrageous level.  Graphics software company Micrografx even built an entire half-pipe in their booth and had roller skaters shredding up and down all day.  That quickly changed – by 2002 it was austere and simple.  CES has been going through the same thing. The last few years have been a cavalcade of "can you top this".  I’ll bet this year it’s all business.  The same thing happened at E3 before it died – million dollar booths that didn’t make it past the eagle-eyes of the bean counters, as the economy worsened.  Bad-ass booths are a sure sign of the apocalypse.

  6. Industry Contraction:  During the eighties and early nineties there were literally hundreds of PC makers.  By 1999 there were really only 5 that mattered.  Same goes for PC channels.  A thousand small and large stores competed to sell PCs and software, but by 1999 there were only a handful left.  The same thing happened in cableTV.  Up until 1998 or so there were a thousand cable operators, which made the Western Cable Show a drunken revel.  But with just five national pay TV companies, cable networks found it more cost effective to have five meetings around the country, rather than build a big booth to have those same meetings.  Consumer Electronics is in the same boat.  Wal*Mart, Best Buy and a few others are really all that matter.  Why build a big booth, pay for all that travel, and waste all that time when all you really need to do is travel to Minnesota and Arkansas?

Sure, there may still be a lot of exhibitors, but that’s because of the unique economics of trades shows. They are one of the biggest trailing indicators out there.  To ensure decent floor space, companies have to lock in — and pay for — their space a year in advance.  At healthy trade shows, the busiest office houses the exhibition sales staff.  And since companies have already paid for their booth space in advance, instead of pulling out altogether, they simply cut back on the booth, and cut back on staff. 

I think we’ll see a lot of simple, understaffed booths this year.  And even though we’ll never know, I’ll bet that advance sales for next year are way, way down.  Because that’s what happened with Comdex.  2000 was great, but by 2001 few companies re-upped, as the tech bubble had completely crashed all around us.

I’m not happy about it.  I still love CES, and still consider it an honor to attend.  But my pattern-matching senses are firing like crazy.

See you in Vegas – at least one last time!