- The Consumer Electronics Show, America’s biggest annual trade show dedicated to technology and innovation, has been held in Las Vegas every January for 22 straight years.
- While Las Vegas offers food, lodging, and entertainment in abundance, underneath it all is a part of a city that doesn’t represent where technology is today, and fights against the progress we’ve made as a society – sending the wrong signal to attendees and the rest of the world.
- It’s time for CES to leave Las Vegas.
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LAS VEGAS – Last week marked my third visit to CES, the annual consumer electronics expo. I first went in 2012, then 2019, and then again this year for CES 2020.
I’m a huge fan of tech. I write about it on this site often, and own a ton of it at home. I’m big into progress and innovation, so I’m usually excited to see what CES has to offer each year, even when I don’t physically attend.
This year, I enjoyed the show, but my biggest takeaway was that I felt like the whole thing should have been held elsewhere. Despite the glitz and glamour, Las Vegas just no longer feels right for CES.
The Las Vegas Strip can be a surreal place, and feel stuck in a bygone era – and not fitting for a show about the future. It’s like holding a conference in the middle of Times Square: It’s sensation overload. There’s lights and signs and gift shops and alcohol and scantily-clad women (and random men touching them while walking by) everywhere you turn, from the second you arrive in the airport to the moment you enter your hotel.
Mind you, CES hasn’t always been held in Las Vegas. The year it started, 1967, it was actually held in New York City. It’s also been held in Chicago, and one time in Orlando, Florida. So it wouldn’t be crazy to host it somewhere new. But the annual January format we’re accustomed to – holding it in Vegas to kick off the new year – has been this way for 22 straight years, since 1998.
There are many reasons it’s time for a change. The Las Vegas Strip, specifically, isn’t as great for a tech conference as you might think once you’re there and attempt to get around the city using traditional means. But more importantly, the tech industry should be actively trying to get away from the “bro culture” it’s become synonymous with in recent years, and Las Vegas isn’t a conducive place for that transition to happen.
The truth about Vegas food, lodging, and transportation
On paper, Las Vegas seems ideal for a giant trade show like CES. It has incredible food at a range of accessible price points, including restaurants from some of the best chefs in the world. Even the MGM Grand, where I stayed, has restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Joël Robuchon, Masaharu Morimoto, and Ayesha Curry.
Las Vegas also has a ton of lodging that’s really cheap, even if you book last minute. And it has lots of ways to get around, from cars to buses and even a monorail.
All of these things are true. But once you’re actually in Las Vegas for an event like this, you realise there’s more going on under the surface.
Let’s start with the food. It’s true, you can have some incredible culinary experiences in Las Vegas. But they’re not totally accessible – you first need to travel to some hotel-casino, then navigate their massive, maze-like floors to find the restaurant you’re looking for. (Most of these hotel-casinos don’t have great signage, for what it’s worth. But to me, one of the worst aspects of getting to your restaurant is enduring the terrible smell of the slot machines and casino floors, which are all infused with cigarette smoke. It is somehow unbelievably legal to smoke cigarettes indoors in Las Vegas in the year 2020, simply because casinos don’t want their patrons leaving the tables. Having to face the stark existential reality of these institutions – how they can exploit people, and are engineered to suck away time and profit off gambling addiction – on the way to dinner just kind of takes away from the overall experience.
Lodging, meanwhile, is usually more expensive than you think. For example, many hotels in Las Vegas can be had for as little as $US12 a night, or even as little as $US80 for a great spot like the MGM Grand, where I stayed, which is a steal. But while base prices per-night can be low, you tend to get hit with lots of little charges. Take the MGM Grand: Rooms don’t have refrigerators, which forces you to buy more meals since you’re always throwing out any leftover food. The hotel has refrigerators they can lend you, but only if you pay $US35 a night. And don’t bother living off snacks from the hotel’s convenience areas, since everything becomes airport prices, like $US5 for a small Dasani water bottle.
But the biggest issue I have with Las Vegas is getting around. It’s seemingly simple but frustratingly difficult – one area that’s truly in need of some innovation, perhaps along the lines of Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop. Anything to break through the strange bureaucacy that is Las Vegas’ rules around traffic and ride-share options like Uber.
Traffic is always insane during CES, there’s no way around that. But actually getting from point A to point B is more of a pain here than in most cities, due to Vegas’ rules around ride-share options. In Las Vegas, hotels – and even the local international airport – force ride-share services to pick up passengers from highly inconvenient locations, while traditional cabs are given priority access directly in front of the building. That means if you’re used to hailing Lyfts, get ready to walk very long and very strange paths to find your driver. You’ll also be waiting a long time for a car, due to a combination of high demand and hard-to-find pickup areas.
Las Vegas has a monorail, which can be a godsend, but feels sadly incomplete. Yes, wait times are only 5 minutes for a train, which is ideal for any mass-transit system, but the whole monorail only has seven total stops.
There’s a monorail station smack dab in the middle of the Las Vegas convention centre, which is where most of the action at CES happens, but most other hotels and stops are quite far away from the monorail. And the Las Vegas strip is surprisingly vast. This year, I needed to visit the Venetian hotel multiple times – it’s where Ivanka Trump spoke, and several other companies like Amazon and The Void had new experiences to show off – but it took an extra 20 minutes to walk to the Venetian hotel from its the closest advertised monorail stop, and I was hoofing it.
Overall, Las Vegas is a lot less convenient, and more expensive, than you might think. But there’s a bigger problem, and it’s related to the culture. Put simply, Las Vegas should not become synonymous with the American tech scene.
America’s biggest tech show deserves better
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You can convince yourself that Las Vegas is family-friendly due to its food and entertainment, but the city itself was designed for debauchery. It embraces the “Sin City” moniker and the “What happens in Vegas” catchphrase. The city itself – outside of the ritzy casinos – is decrepit, with lots of gift shops and bars.
Given how far we’ve come as a society, through #MeToo and anti-discrimination laws, Las Vegas no longer feels appropriate for CES, a trade show meant to celebrate progress. The tech industry should be trying to get away from the Silicon Valley “bro culture” that’s been mocked by shows like, well, “Silicon Valley,” instead of feeding into it further.
Over the years, the tech industry has become synonymous with sexism, drugs, and partying, almost as much as actual technology; Emily Chang did a great job reporting on this male-dominated culture in her book “Brotopia.” Startups like Uber gained a reputation for hard partying (and faced federal charges of gender discrimination), and even older behemoths like Microsoft did things like throw parties with go-go dancers.
But this isn’t acceptable anymore. Through legal pressure, diversity initiatives, and the effects of the #MeToo movement, tech companies as a whole are starting to move away from this type of sexist and chauvinistic behaviour. But a lot of this stuff still happens in Las Vegas. People from all over the world come together for CES, but the backdrop – the city – still reminds the industry of the old skin it’s trying to shed.
By this point you’re probably wondering where you think CES should be held, if not Las Vegas. I’ll be honest: I have no idea. I wrote this not because I have a better city in mind, but because I feel like Las Vegas is no longer fit to host America’s biggest tech show from an existential point of view. You could host CES in the middle of the desert like Burning Man for all I care. Better yet, host it in Toronto, where I live. Toronto is a beautiful, super progressive city with lots of big tech companies – but so are lots of cities in North America. You could have it in New York City, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Austin. I’d suggest a lot of cities over Las Vegas.
A wise man once said, “Don’t limit your audience if you don’t have to.” Well right now, CES is limiting itself by continually choosing Las Vegas. Associating America’s biggest tech show of the year with a city known for old-school vice and depravity sends the wrong signal – to attendees, kids, and tech culture in general. Keeping CES in Las Vegas is the easy choice, but it reinforces bad habits.
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