12 secrets to surviving CES

Video wall at CES 2011

Prepare to be dazzled by video walls like this one from CES 2011. Part of a photo by Tech Cocktail.

The International CES, what we used to call the Consumer Electronics Show, opens in three weeks. I’ve already got my hotel and plane reservations, but as is tradition, I check prices every week leading up to the show. During the Great Recession, those prices would actually go down as the deadline approached. Last couple of years, they’ve gone up as the weeks went by. This year, in the runup to CES 2015, the numbers are crazy, climbing faster and reaching higher than I’ve ever seen. CES 2014 set an attendance record. CES 2015 should attract even more.

If you happen to be one of those new attendees, welcome! A couple of years ago, Chris Potter wrote 10 Steps for Success at NAB, a slightly smaller show at the same convention center. That’s a good primer for the personal connections aspect, and overall the second-best convention guide I’ve read. First place goes immodestly to my own guide, refined through years of experience of attending CES and the NAB Show. Here’s what you need to survive CES:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes. I can’t emphasize this enough. Attending CES involves a whole lot of walking, and worse, a whole lot of standing. Standing during presentations. Standing in the taxi line. Standing in the lunch line. Not only will you walk farther that usual, you’ll stand a lot more than usual. Find those comfy shoes now and break them in before you arrive. Another way to save your feet…
  2. When you get a chance to sit, take it. This can mean keeping an eye out for empty chairs and couches. Also, time your booth visits to take advantage of seated presentations. If you pass by a booth with a mob standing around watching a presentation that you’d like to see, or in a long line for a presentation theater about to start, make a note of when the next showing will be, then keep moving. If you pass by a booth with a presentation that’s going to start in 10 minutes, have a seat if you think it’ll be of interest to you. Use this 10-minute break to check your schedule, check your email, and get friendly with the folks at the booth. You’ll get the benefit of an unobstructed view of a full presentation and your feet will get the benefit of a full half-hour break.
  3. Drink plenty of water. Las Vegas is a desert city, and the lack of moisture in the air can be deceptive. Dehydration quietly saps muscle strength, making your legs feel more tired. Drink even when you don’t notice that you’re thirsty. A really good tactic is to get a small water bottle to sip while waiting for something, then to refill from a water fountain. And to carry that bottle, you’ll want to …
  4. Get a good bag. (Or bring an especially good one from home.) Don’t just grab the first one you see. Make sure your bag is substantial enough to carry the boxed Fitbit you hope to win. Select a fabric bag with a tasteful, colorful logo and a short, strong handle. When you see one of those, grab it fast; those are the bags that run out before the show’s over. Pick a name that you won’t mind displaying at your side for all the time you’re walking around. And here’s another good use for that bag…
  5. Bring food. A PowerBar or Clif Bar or maybe even a Snickers will do. If you prefer something warm and mediocre, you can take a half hour to wait in line, pay too much, then struggle to find a place to eat lunch. Or you can unwrap a protein bar from your pocket or bag and munch on it as you sit and watch an exhibitor’s presentation. Save your time to visit more booths, and save your money for a real meal after the exhibit hall closes for the night.
  6. Get a lightweight map. If there’s an application with a map that you can load on your smartphone, that’s the lightest map you can get. Otherwise, get the map that weighs the least. When you remember that you wanted to visit TooCool’s booth, you’ll want to know where to find it. When you want to find the nearest rest room, you’ll definitely be thankful for the map.
  7. Beware of heavy freebies. There are so many great things for free at a big show. Free magazines. Free catalogs. Free paperweights. You can probably haul around all the pens that you’ll get, but anything that feels a little heavy at 11 is going to be a burden by 4. If you really need that inch-thick catalog, plan to pick it up as you leave for the night.
  8. Have a plan, but don’t expect to stick to it. Make note of the high points that you absolutely have to see. Add some topics that sound interesting, but which don’t have the same high priority. Make a list of exhibitors you want to meet. Then walk onto the floor with the expectation that your schedule may change. There will be a lot of interesting stuff out there, including something you never thought of. Don’t be afraid to set aside what looked good yesterday when you want to learn more about something that’s amazingly cool today.
  9. Allot enough time if you want to meet someone famous. There will be celebrities of various statures who appear at booths for signings or photos. If you want to be sure to meet one, know where to be and when the celebrity will arrive. The length of the line waiting to see the celeb will be proportional to the celeb’s popularity. If Paul McCartney will be at the Apple Records booth at 11, you’d better be in line by 10:30 or earlier. If it’s me signing my feature story in the Tele-Satellite International magazine booth, you can drop by whenever.
  10. Get a room. Some folks like to roll into Las Vegas at the last minute and expect to find decent rooms near the convention center at a good price. That strategy might have worked in 2009, but it won’t today. If that sounds like you, my best suggestions would be the decent hotels downtown, such as the Fremont, or Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway. Downtown has direct (if meandering) city bus service to the convention center; Boulder Highway doesn’t.
  11. Get coffee. Almost all Las Vegas hotels, no matter how swank, lack two amenities that I could find at a Super 8 in the middle of Kansas: an in-room coffee maker and a pot of free coffee in the lobby. If you visit the Starbucks or equivalent inside your Las Vegas hotel, it will be a mob. If you wait until you get to the convention center to go to Starbucks, it will be a mob. The alternatives are joints that serve regular morning coffee with other stuff. My pick would be the ampm gas station/convenience store across Paradise Road from the Westgate (formerly LVH, formerly Las Vegas Hilton). Any McDonalds or 7-Eleven would also work.
  12. Ride the CES bus. If the CES shuttle bus goes to your hotel, take it going and coming. It’ll be slow and crowded, and it’ll still be the best option for getting to the convention center and back. I love the monorail, but it’s a terrible, slow crush during CES unless you’re staying at the SLS (where the Sahara used to be). Taxi lines get insanely long. Private parking is expensive, distant, and still subjects you to the same traffic the bus oozes through. Better yet is a hotel within walking distance.

If you want still more advice, the official short video for first-time CES attendees reminds you to register online before you arrive to avoid long registration lines, and to make your dinner reservations early. If you don’t know how to qualify to attend CES, it’s easy; just follow Step 1 in How to get a free pass to CES, which I wrote a while back. So make your plans, come join me at the show, and be ready to be amazed.