On more than one occasion as I have relaxed in my seat aboard an aircraft sat on the tarmac in McCarron Airport, Las Vegas, at the end of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of those unusual factoids we all have in our brains entered into my mind. The great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s family motto was, “Fortitudine Vincimus” which means by, or through, endurance, we conquer.
From my second visit onward, I have treated the annual CES technology trade show as an endurance event, because the first time I went I had no idea what I was in for. There is nothing quite like CES, and until you’ve attended, it’s very difficult to understand what it’s really like. As we prepare for an online-only CES 2021, let me give you my insider’s view of why, despite the toll the in-person event takes on your mind and body, I’m really going to miss it this year.
Everything I talk about here will be about my own personal CES experience, but just because it’s like this for me, does not mean it’s how CES is for anyone else. Everyone “does” CES differently, which is often down to the reason they’re at the show in the first place, and how dedicated they are to enjoying everything Vegas has to offer outside the show. Apart from the exhaustion, that is. Everyone feels that.
My average CES day goes something like this. The time I wake up and prepare to leave the hotel is dictated by the time of my first appointment, which is usually around 9 a.m. Meetings, events, and product launches are the lifeblood of CES, as it’s where you see and try everything that’s new and meet company representatives. They’re spread over the city, and distance between locations is important to consider when organizing your diary. An hour to get from one location to another is not unusual, and that’s when you know where you’re going.
However, no one knows exactly where they’re going in Las Vegas, because every place you visit is designed to keep you spending money inside the shops or casinos, rather than finding one suite out of thousands in gigantic hotels. Navigation is just another of CES’s challenges, and a reason why at least 20,000 steps are regularly achieved on the busiest days. Between appointments and events, you inevitably stumble across other interesting new things if you’re in the convention center, adding to your list of things to write about. Writing these stories is done at any time, and anywhere. All journalists who’ve attended CES will have at some point written stories up while sat on a hallway floor.
Food is rarely a priority during the day, but most battle-hardened CES attendees will have a stash of energy bars and other snacks in their bag, which can be consumed on the way to the next appointment, or when finally seated at a press event. The arid Nevada air means when someone offers you water at CES, you take it regardless of your thirst, because dehydration is never far away. Neither are dry lips or sandpaper-like hands. After the show closes for the day there are usually parties or events to attend in the evening, friends to have food with, catch-up meetings with colleagues, and more work to be done before the night ends. Then you do it all again the next day.
It’s a week of not having enough sleep, finding food when you can, staying hydrated, taking care of your skin, walking for miles, never being exactly sure you’re going in the right direction, and working your socks off. Through endurance, CES attendees conquer.
Is it really possible to miss an event as punishing as CES? Yes, it really is. If you like tech and enjoy your tech-related job, the relentlessness of CES ends up not mattering because the people you meet are almost always great, and things you see, try, and write about are so exciting. I’ve slept with a robot at CES, got a (temporary) tattoo, had my mind altered, found tech that helps blind people see, interacted with artificial humans, and tried all kinds of tech that was well ahead of its time, including in-display fingerprint sensors and smart glasses.
Without CES, it’s unlikely I would have tried all these products, and the virtual show this year will make it much harder for me to discover cutting-edge technology just like it. All the products I mentioned above really stood out because I could see, try, and fully understand them in person. It can’t be helped this year, but I’d be disappointed if the pandemic changed large scale events like CES forever for this reason.
CES’s size and diversity means you never quite knew what you’d find next. Even though the show runs for four days, I have never come close to exploring every hall or seeing every booth. The feeling of elation when you find a really cool new product, and had it explained by enthusiastic and knowledgeable people, is unmatched. I remember walking away from many meetings at CES — meeting DnaNudge at CES 2020 springs to mind — and being so hyped up I couldn’t wait to write the story, or to tell my colleagues about it either. At CES, this can happen multiple times a day, every day. When you love your job like I do, to miss out on this is truly saddening.
CES, as I hope I’ve made clear, is far from a carefree vacation in Vegas. But when you visit a place every year for (in my case) six years in a row, there will be more personal things you grow attached to, and I’ll miss doing them this year. For example, every year I and some friends have a tradition of eating at Shake Shack at least once, and preferably drinking tea together at some point on the last night too. CES is an incredibly social event, and everyone bonds over the sheer insanity of it all.
Beyond the many friends and colleagues I see at CES, I will always make random connections too, in a way that can only happen at CES. In 2020 I shared a cab with someone I didn’t know, who turned out to be on the cusp of starting a new job at the company I was actually on my way to see. I’ve sat on the coaches that ferry people between hotels and been pitched products. I’ve stood in taxi lines outside hotels and ended up exchanging contact details with the person behind me, becoming good friends afterward. That’s before bumping into people in the packed hallways who I’ve not seen for a year, and making coffee appointments to meet people I’ve only ever spoken to by email.
Then there’s Vegas itself. I have a love-and-hate relationship with the city, always experiencing excitement and awe when I arrive, and then being glad to be on a plane leaving it a week or so after. But that initial rush of “I can’t quite believe this place exists” is very addictive, and not having it right at the start of 2021 is sad. I also hate the thought of how the pandemic has affected Las Vegas and the many lovely people who work there that I’ve met. It’s always over-the-top, never quiet, frequently ridiculous, and often seedy, but I’ve still never been anywhere like it.
Last year, if you’d have asked me to write a love letter to CES, I don’t think it’d have come out anything like this. With the in-person show on pause, it’s much easier to look back at the things that make it not only special to me personally, but also how well it succeeds at bringing a giant, vibrant, and fast-moving industry together. If virtual CES 2021 captures any of this, it’ll have done its job well. However, I’ll still be hopeful for a return to Vegas and a real CES next year, when no doubt I’ll think about Shackleton, his motto, and his astonishing adventures again too.
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