Outboarders Invade CES '99

Outboarders---it has a certain dark ring to it, conjuring the image of futuristic outlaws from a William Gibson sci-fi novel, or perhaps a renegade hacker cult living off-planet somewhere.

Okay, so I'm being a tad dramatic: what it really sounds like is slang for motorboats with engines hanging off their rears. But high-end audio folk know it as a term ever more frequently applied to trade-show renegades who bolt the official halls and hotels for cheaper venues during a convention.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show, long considered the key event for audio companies marketing their wares to the press, dealers, and distributors in the industry, has been under attack for years. Bands of high-end audio manufacturers (outboarders) set up their displays in various hotels around Las Vegas in sync with the "official" event. In addition to companies at the sanctioned Alexis Park location, manufacturers at the show last January were dug in at the Golden Nugget, the Debbie Reynolds, Howard Johnson, Caesars Palace, the Mirage, and on and on. It got so bad that a common complaint heard from attendees was that the show was too spread-out to cover in the alloted four or five days. Companies were scattered so wide that several writers resisted venturing from the rooms at the Alexis Park, main halls, and one or two hotels in an effort to weed out the list.

But times are tough for the tweak crowd, and pinching pennies is on a lot of people's minds, so the temptation to forgo the front rows for the cheap seats is great. In the past, the upsides for outboarders included cheaper rooms, more focused visitors (they had to really want to find you), flexible hours, and cheaper rooms. The downsides: no listing in the official show directories, fewer visitors, less press coverage. In short, you usually got what you payed for.

For CES '99, coming to Las Vegas next January 7-10, outboarding has gone into overdrive with several manufacturers signing up for a new show within a show: The Home Entertainment Show (or T.H.E. Show). Audio designer Mike Maloney, from Scientific Fidelity, along with his partner Todd Brown, has headed up a roster of companies willing to display next to the Alexis Park at two hotels---the St. Tropez and the AmeriSuites. Maloney says that "this will not be your typical outboard show. I'd be disappointed if we didn't get 95% of the attendance of the Alexis Park."

Marketing costs are far less for the outboarders; after all, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), which runs CES, spends the dough that brings the customers to Las Vegas in the first place. As a result, room prices for T.H.E. Show are several thousand dollars cheaper than the official ones next door. But one has to wonder if it's fair for outboarders to piggyback (some would say leech) on the backs of the companies that bother to pay for those CEMA marketing costs in the form of higher room rates at the official sites.

"I really don't think that all of the money spent at the Alexis Park each year goes into promoting the High End," says Maloney. "I understand that we are riding on their coat-tails, but don't apologize for helping our part of the industry. We are bringing in several manufacturers who could no longer afford to do CES." Maloney also pointed out that they will be spending "plenty" of money on promoting T.H.E. Show with ads, fax blitzes, on-site signage, and a large party Thursday night.

When asked if he's been contacted by CEMA about T.H.E. Show, Maloney responds, "haven't heard from them yet, but I'm sure I will." He explains that even though T.H.E. Show will likely not make a profit the first year, they do plan to continue with more shows in the future---hopefully being able to make a living at it.

Will they get away with it? Should they get away with it? Time will tell. Several manufacturers have already started grumbling about this latest assault by the outboarders, while dozens of others, including Classé, Hales, and Spectral, have embraced the approach without looking back. "At the very least," Maloney says, "we might force CEMA to get more competitive and lower their rates." And that has to be a good thing for the High End in anyone's book.