The first sign that this year’s CES was going to be different came at Las Vegas International Airport’s baggage claim, an area that normally bears a frightening resemblance to a Tokyo subway platform. This year, though, instead of having of shove my way through, I fairly waltzed to the appropriate carousel. The next sign was the ever-dreaded taxi line outside baggage claim. Waits of an hour or more are neither unusual nor unexpected for seasoned CES denizens. This time—ten minutes!
Las Vegas during CES 2009 is by no means a ghost town. There are plenty of people here; just no crowds. Instead, the town is percolating along at its normal, non-CES clip. The state of the city—including readily available taxis, hotel rooms, and dinner or show reservations—is only noteworthy if you know that CES is typically Vegas’ most crowded week of the entire year.
The no-crowds theme continued, inevitably, at the exhibits themselves. “Light” was the ubiquitous word exhibitors used to describe attendance. Most every listening room I entered yesterday was either empty or had just a smattering of attendees. Company reps have been reduced to standing in the halls of the Venetian, imploring passers-by to come in and listen. A colleague reported that he was able to cover the entire mammoth South Hall at the main Convention Center in less than two hours.
As a member of the press, and as a temporary Las Vegas citizen, I couldn’t be more delighted. I never realized how much of my time at CES is normally squandered in the act of waiting. Here I am not referring to the normally painful act of simply getting around, of which all CES attendees are acutely aware, but rather to the listening rooms themselves. This year, I can hear whatever I want, whenever I want to. I can plop right down in the sweetest listening seat. And I have unfettered, immediate access to executives and product managers, who are happy to play my choice of music and answer all my questions.
As an industry observer, however, the dearth of crowds here is obviously troubling. That the economic downturn is having an impact is inescapable. The reaction from manufacturers varies from resigned girding to nonchalance, primarily depending upon the price range of their products. Even products that are inexpensive by High End standards, such as $3,000 speakers, are bound to be considered luxuries most middle Americans can’t afford in this climate. So makers of inexpensive and even moderately expensive products are nervous and are planning expense cutbacks to counteract the expected decline in demand.
Not so for manufacturers who operate at the high end of the High End. By all reports, they have been manifestly unaffected by economic conditions. And why should they be? As one such company’s president put it, “If a client’s portfolio drops from $12 million to $8 million, he can still afford to buy my speakers.” This particular firm’s speakers run about $89,000, and orders are way up. His competitors were equally bullish in their forecasts. So, once again, we are confronted with the fact that the rich really are different.
But for less fortunate companies—those with a more typical clientele—reality must be addressed, and that, as already mentioned, means curtailing expenses. One such cutback may be CES itself. I have heard several companies conclude that the show is no longer worth it. Next year, CES may find itself in a downward spiral whereby fewer attendees breeds fewer exhibitors, which in turn breeds fewer attendees. The money spent to be at CES, I heard it said, can be better spent by simply visiting and supporting existing dealers. If that attitude prevails, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest may well become the exclusive venue for High End audio trade.
I don’t see that as a necessarily bad thing. Trade shows, like mountains, come and go over time. In my field of telecom, for example, the once thriving Interop and Internet World shows are long gone, replaced by different shows more relevant to their time. This is the normal course of things in every industry, and High End audio will likely be no exception.