How to Survive CES As a Journalist (Or, Who Has The Best Food)
I first went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2011, as a publication-less freelance writer. I didn't make appointments -- I wandered the show floor aimlessly, drinking in the colorful lights and crowds of people and picking up swag and schmoozing with PR people. I stayed in the swanky all-suite section of Planet Hollywood (PH Towers, now Elara) and ditched the show floor early to head over to those famous Vegas outlets. It was awesome.
My second year at CES, I went as a commissioned writer for PCWorld covering car tech -- a burgeoning area of coverage that nobody else was interested in. I made tons of appointments. I learned the layout of the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) by heart. During CES Unveiled, an event that happens the day before the show starts (Sunday evening), I lost my notebook full of appointments, schedules, and meeting points. I didn't make any of my appointments. I missed half my meetings. I went with the flow. It was awesome.
My third year at CES, I went again as a paid-lancer for PCWorld, Macworld, and TechHive. I made a bunch of appointments with no intention of keeping them. I hit up late-night parties and ate a lot of free food. I also managed to make all my deadlines -- no worries :) It was still pretty awesome.
In my three years of going to CES, I've learned a lot. In my five years of living in California, I've learned even more -- about Vegas.
Here are my tips -- yes, they're food-focused and anti-appointment -- for surviving CES as a writer, journalist, editor, or other press person:
1. ShowStoppers has the best food
There's a ton of free food at CES. As a press person, you even get free lunches -- if you want to stand in line (PRO TIP: 11:30 is the best time to get lunch) for an hour and a half. All the press events have free food, and some nice companies may even invite you to a sit-down dinner. Go to these events. They will be the only time when you get food.
There are three main evening press events at CES: CES Unveiled, Pepcom's Digital Experience, and ShowStoppers. You'll want to hit up at least one of these events, since most of the small companies will be showing off their cool stuff here. The best turnout (for products) will be at Digital Experience, which is a themed-event with giveaways and theme-food. But I'm convinced Pepcom does this theme-situation as an excuse for crappy food. The themes are often low-key, like "football" and "western," so they can offer hamburgers and fries. I don't hate hamburgers and fries, but I need to not feel like crap for the rest of the week. CES Unveiled has acceptable food, but it's usually on the appetizer side and there's not a lot of selection.
But ShowStoppers...oh, ShowStoppers. Okay, so ShowStoppers is usually weak in terms of awesome products -- it's the last event (on Tuesday), so you've probably already seen all the cool stuff. But it's held at the Wynn and catered by the Wynn. We're talking gourmet pasta, a mile-long cheese spread, and amazing desserts. People will tell you not to go to ShowStoppers. Go to ShowStoppers. For the food.
2. Avoid booths with giveaways and celebs
There are many ways in which PR people will try to woo you. Prizes, gifts, food, giveaways, celebrities, sexy naked women...are only a few of those ways. By all means, feel free to find the booths with food -- like I said, you will rarely have time to eat, so take those opportunities and run. And hey, if someone offers you a gift for attending their press conference, that's your choice.
But if they have giveaways, contests, or celebrities, STAY THE HECK AWAY.
Here's why: Au contraire to what you may think, CES is not just an event for journalists to connect with vendors. It's actually, like, a tradeshow. And there are a ton of people, such as buyers, engineers, designers, developers, random business people, etc. at CES. And all of these people are far too easily wooed by giveaways and celebs. So if you go near a booth with giveaways or celebs, you will (a) waste your time, (b) probably get trampled to death by a crowd of middle-management types, and (c) not win any prizes or meet any celebs.
3. Don't make appointments
Okay, you can make some appointments. Like, if there's a product you really want to see, and you know you are going to write about. And also the PR person is your best friend's sister. But don't be tempted to give in to PR pressure and make ALL THE APPOINTMENTS, because guess what? You will not be able to keep them.
Seriously, you will not. The LVCC is huge, lots of companies want you to meet off-site, and sometimes you will want to curl up in a corner of the Emerald Room and go to sleep. Plus, the companies that say their schedules are filling up fast are usually lying. Even huge companies (perhaps especially huge companies?) like Intel and Nvidia always have someone who can talk to you if you just drop-in unannounced. They might not love you for it, but they don't need to love you. They just need to talk to you.
4. Pick and choose your swag
Do you need a toy Android with a small company's logo plastered across its chest? A foam Loch Ness monster? A cellphone screen cleaner?
No. And airlines charge for extra bags these days.
But that doesn't mean you should eschew all swag! Some swag is useful. Things to pick up include pens (you will lose all of your pens every day), notepads, portable battery chargers, and USB flash drives. Okay, so the flash drives aren't really swag so much as press kits, but they're super useful as random storage devices once you've pulled the pictures and press releases. But you can have too many flash drives. I have approximately 700. That's too many.
5. Wear comfortable shoes, or don't, your feet will hurt anyway
But they'll hurt less if you wear sneakers or hiking boots or orthopedic inserts.
PRO TIP: Some of the fancy booths (Intel, etc.) will have nice, plush carpeting. These are usually located in the Central Hall.
6. Carry protein bars and water
Remember what I said about not getting a chance to eat? I hate protein bars, but I hate fainting from lack of sustenance even more...
7. Plan to not have Internet
At CES you'll experience one of the most frustrating situations ever: Having full bars on your cellphone but no service. That's because even Verizon/AT&T/T-Mobile/Sprint's extra-awesome-robust-networks just cannot handle that which is CES. There are way too many mobile devices on all of the networks; you will not get service wherever you are. Texting works best, but even that's dicey.
So plan to not have Internet. Pressure PR people into giving you press kits on a USB drive, because there is 0 percent chance that you will be able to download their nicely-put-together press package from any website, anywhere. Write what you can sans Internet and pray to the gods that your hotel Internet isn't terrible. Consider bringing a big laptop that you can leave in you room and hook up to an Ethernet cable.
Oh, and always bring your charging cables.
8. Don't go to parties OR if you do go to parties...don't get drunk
Parties -- even if they're "press parties" -- are for CES attendees...not press people. Trust me on this one. Remember all those random middle-management people and engineers? They get to go to the show, have meetings all day, and then, at 5 p.m., stop working. They go to dinner with colleagues, gamble a bit, get drunk, and head to some swanky company party.
But not you! You get to to go to meetings all day (some of which are unconscionably early) and all evening, maybe eat a protein bar, and then write until 3 a.m. Then you might get to go to a party, if you really want to sacrifice your precious three hours of sleep on partying and dehydrating yourself instead of, well, sleeping. So...just don't do it. Unless you're a champion and you don't drink, or you don't go to any morning meetings. Or both. Or you write while you party.
9. Don't play Blackjack
CES time is the worst time to play table games, especially Blackjack.
Let me explain:
- Tables are priced for a 100,000+ rich tech convention. Expect $50 minimums, even in low-end casinos.
- Pit bosses are on HIGH ALERT for advantage players. Remember, 100,000+ attendee convention...and a lot of those attendees are engineers and mathematical geniuses.
- You don't have time to gamble, even if Blackjack is a quick game.
10. Don't bother dressing up
Every year, I bring all sorts of nice clothes, thinking, this year I will wear real pants and look semi-professional. But really, looking semi-professional is overrated, uncomfortable, and too much effort. So every year I end up wearing jeans, sneakers, and plain white t-shirts.
You're a journalist. Embrace it! Nobody expects you to wear suits or slacks or heels or jackets. They don't even expect you to show up half the time. Obviously you should attempt to not look like you live on the street (you know...no ripped jeans, no smelly overcoats and large shopping carts full of plastic bags), but otherwise, keep it simple. I wear dark jeans, sneakers (sometimes boots), and plain t-shirts. Sometimes I'll wear a sweatshirt, but not a sloppy-looking one. One of those nice, fitted ones from a yoga store, or something.
Another reason to keep your wardrobe simple is because you'll be carrying a (possibly large) bag or backpack. There's nothing more annoying than having to constantly adjust your blazer because your backpack is making it look all funky.
11. BONUS TIP: Be nice to PR people
PR people get a lot of flack -- from me, and in general -- but they're trying to make your life easier. So be nice to them, unless they're doing something super obnoxious (like calling you at 7 a.m. on the first day of the show). Plus, they have access to food, drinks, parties, and information -- all things you need to sustain your life and career as a journalist. Mostly food.
Well, those are the first 10 tips I could think of off the top of my head. Not a journalist?
Check out my article on how you, a PR person/company exec/random attendee can woo me, a journalist, at the world's largest tech tradeshow.