Playing the Consumer Electronics Show
Seattle Times technology reporter
The International Consumer Electronics Show, which officially begins today in Las Vegas, is at its heart a giant corporate marketing event, studded with bigwig speeches, technology demonstrations, rock concerts and dancing girls.
Companies as large as Microsoft and as small as 15-employee Lagotek, a Bellevue wireless home-automation startup, will vie for the attention of their target audiences — be it customers, media, industry analysts or would-be partners.
Some 2,700 companies are exhibiting to an anticipated 140,000 attendees, and the event is not open to the public.
"The senses just are attacked from all angles," said Steve Miller, a marketing consultant and trade-show expert based in Federal Way who attended his first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as a teenager.
"It takes an enormous amount of space in Las Vegas. You've got to bus yourself around. The lines are just horrendous," Miller said.
But, he added, "if you're just a techie at heart, you're going to salivate all the way around this show."
Exhibitors work for months to prepare for the show, including a dead sprint in the weeks leading up to today. Then they do their best to be heard above the clamor of the show floor, which covers the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center and spills into three nearby megahotels.
Lagotek President Ron Risdon said his company planned to issue more news releases connected to CES than at any other time this year — "simply to try to get some attention in a very noisy environment."
Companies pursue a range of strategies to get what they want, and what they can afford, out of CES. There's everything from the spare-no-expense exhibitions of the major technology giants to quiet off-floor hotel suites where companies can show off proprietary technology and ink business deals.
Microvision's engineers plowed through the holidays to finish shrinking the lasers, mirrors and electronics in its prototype PicoP projector to a tiny module that could fit inside a mobile device such as a smart phone.
The idea is the ultracompact projector — Microvision says it's the size of a "thin mint" — would give people "a big-screen in your pocket" for viewing and sharing videos and photos stored on mobile devices.
Meanwhile, the Redmond company's business-development team was booking private meetings with key executives from major device manufacturers. Microvision opted to hold its meetings in a large room at the Embassy Suites where it can dim the lights to better demonstrate the PicoP and keep things confidential.
"A lot of the discussions we're having with people right now are under nondisclosure agreements," said Russell Hannigan, Microvision's director of business development for advanced products. "Also, in a private setting, we can control the environment better."
Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Arlington, Va., industry group that produces CES, packs the show floor with exhibitors, and space doesn't come cheap: $40 a square foot ($35 for association members), said Dan Cole, the association's vice president of sales and business development.
Space is also in high demand. As much as 90 percent of the 2008 CES show floor will be booked by the end of this week's show. Space goes on sale today at 10 a.m., with companies that have exhibited at CES for all of its 40 years getting first crack, Cole said.
Buying the booth space is only the beginning. Additional costs include booth construction, carpeting, cleaning, Internet and telephone connections as well as travel and entertainment for the staff.
Cole said expenses can run to four times the booth-rental rate.
Using that rough measure, Microsoft's 16,000 square-foot booth could easily cost upward of $2.2 million, though the company does not detail its marketing expenditures.
Miller, the trade-show expert, said there's a reason why companies spend so much on their CES exhibits.
"Visually, the booth is a representative of your brand," said Miller, who has consulted with both CEA and Microsoft, among other large companies. "You are in a three-dimensional environment that is competitive comparison at its best. Your prospects can walk into your booth and hang out for 15 minutes and then walk across the aisle and head into your competitor's booth."
You'll need a bit more than 15 minutes to get through Microsoft's booth.
It will be outfitted with 150 different demo stations including products from 44 partners spread across six "scenarios" meant to portray various "connected experiences" enabled by Microsoft's software, said Leila Toplic, manager of Microsoft's Consumer Strategy Team, responsible for the company's delivery at CES. Some 450 people will staff the booth.
Lagotek is one of the partners piggybacking on the Microsoft booth, as well as the booth of another of its partners. That helps the company stretch its marketing dollars and gain visibility by association.
Lagotek's systems work in concert with Vista's Media Center to dim the lights in a home theater when a movie is starting, among other functions.
Microsoft's preparations for CES resemble a traveling Broadway production. Beginning after Labor Day, product groups, public-relations managers and consumer specialists from across the company meet to map out the CES message, Toplic said.
Scripts were written. Sets were designed. There were rehearsals until just before Christmas. All the computers, Xboxes, mobile devices and supporting hardware used in demonstrations were gathered and tested.
Then the whole show was loaded into semitrucks and shipped to Las Vegas.
The booth is one of many ways Microsoft broadcasts itself to CES. Chairman Bill Gates gave his much-anticipated preshow keynote address Sunday night, as he has been doing for years. Company executives and product managers make the rounds of CES panel discussions, host interviews with media and analysts, and schmooze with partners and customers at evening parties.
Companies with fewer resources can't spread themselves so far and wide.
Scott Horman, brand communications manager with AudioControl of Mountlake Terrace, said the small crew going from his company will try to avoid the distractions of Vegas.
"We're not the partiers," he said. "We're not going to go out all the night before and show up the next morning expecting to be at our best. We're there to work."
AudioControl, which makes home and car audio equipment, designed its 20- by 30-foot booth not to attract the CES masses but to best display its products to a select group of high-quality audio dealers.
Ahead of the show, the company contacted about 120 dealers and invited them into the booth, Horman said.
Making preshow contacts is at least as important as what a company does at the show itself, Miller said.
"The average attendee at a show like CES is only going to have conversations — really good quality conversations — with maybe 50 or 60 companies, just because they run out of steam and they run out of time," he said.
"If you go to the show and you wait for them to walk by, then you're just spinning your wheels."
Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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