CES Attendees Cautiously Optimistic About the Venetian

Despite griping and grumbling about the change, many makers of high-performance audio gear appear to have settled on their new official venue at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. Two months before the start of the 2007 CES (to be held January 8–11), all but 12 of the Venetian's 198 exhibit rooms and suites had already been sold.

But precious few CDs, LPs, or DVDs will be available for purchase at the Venetian—virtually all vendors of audiophile recordings are either boycotting the hotel entirely, or have committed to display areas where Nevada's sales-tax laws prohibit sales of products and demo units. But at least 226 manufacturers of high-performance audio and home-theater gear will be represented. Hundreds of other such companies will exhibit either on the main floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, at the unaffiliated T.H.E. Show, a shuttle-bus ride away at the St. Tropez, or in non-official venues like the Mirage.

Karen Chupka, senior VP of CES Events and Conferences, told me that the Venetian offers an assortment of exhibit spaces. These include 123 suites in five different styles, ranging in size from 404 to 1180 square feet. Also available are 75 demo rooms in the Venetian Meeting Space area, on Levels 2–4. Separated by sliding fiberglass air walls, the high-ceilinged demo rooms range in size from 342 to 600 square feet. The Venetian's ballroom also offers, in the Venetian Meeting Space area on Level 2, open booth space similar to the ballroom at the former CES venue for high-performance audio, the Alexis Park.

Click on the above image for a walk-around video of the new venue.

Although the Venetian offers a total of 47 fewer exhibit spaces than the 245 available at the Alexis Park, the combined square footage of those spaces is considerably greater. The Venetian has already sold 86,292 square feet of exhibit space vs the Alexis Park's 70,767 square feet.

The question remains as to how much of the Venetian's square footage will be usable. The hotel's 123 sleeping rooms are dual-level, divided by a railing and a potentially problematic step-down floor and ceiling. Though beds can be removed by exhibitors, all other furniture must remain. Making the best use of such spaces will demand the same sort of creativity required to work around the Alexis Park's immovable counters.

Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable has already visited the Venetian twice to measure noise levels, about which he is a stickler. "My sense is that the rooms are of very solid construction," he reports. "The hall had architectural features and carpet that tended to absorb the sound. Ceiling height is good. The rooms' step-up/step-down could be a challenge for some setups, but it also provides two areas, one for meetings, one for listening.

"Some of the larger rooms, I think, will be as good as any demo room at CES. Maybe some of the smaller ones as well. The air-walled meeting rooms have some acoustic transfer, but the air walls seem to be of unusually top-tier quality. Therefore the transfer will be less than for 'normal' air walls."

Many exhibitors, including some who attended a Venetian preview this past July, are far less sanguine about the move. Leland Leard, Music Hall's VP of sales and marketing, opines, "Sound didn't really seem to be at the top of [CES management's] list. It wasn't even considered. What was considered was attractiveness of environment. I felt we got a grand sales pitch for why [the High Performance Audio Subdivision of CEA] made the move, but it seemed as though it would present a number of challenges for exhibitors, sound being one."

High among other challenges is the prohibition against exhibitors shipping in wooden crates, carrying equipment in by themselves, and selling demo units at the Show's conclusion. The cozy situation at the Alexis Park, to which exhibitors could transport equipment in their vehicles, then park near the rooms and carry stuff in themselves, will now be possible only at the St. Tropez, home of T.H.E. Show. Instead, exhibitors at the Venetian are encouraged to ship to the CES advance warehouse, which guarantees that their freight will already be delivered to their rooms by the time they check in. This arrangement (standard for exhibits at the Convention Center) has left some exhibitors justifiably nervous—especially those known for finishing a new product 48 hours before CES opens, transporting it uncrated in their SUV, and spending half the Show explaining that it isn't yet broken in.

For those wary of the pervasive toxicity of Las Vegas cigarette smoke, the good news is that shuttle buses will provide direct escalator access to demo rooms. To access the suites, however, attendees will have to walk through the smoke-filled casino area to get to the elevator bank. To speed up that trek, CES staff will be standing along the route to direct attendees. There is no indication that emergency oxygen supplies will be available.

Speaking for himself, rather than as a member of the High Performance Audio Subdivision Board, Ray Kimber, suggests that a main reason for the move was that the CEA's contract with the Alexis Park was up for renewal, and that the hotel's desire to substantially increase prices encouraged Board members to look elsewhere.

"I really didn't want to move, and in some ways still don't," Kimber says. "We have the rooms down, and attendees come with the same set of expectations over and over again. But as venues go, we were selling very-high-end luxury items in the Alexis Park's bazaar environment. The Venetian is far more upscale, and far more suited to selling upscale products to upscale dealers and upscale customers. I think the grumbling is more resistance to change than resistance to the change."

Kathy Gornik, currently vice-chair of CEA's Audio Division Board as well as a member of the High Performance Audio Subdivision Board, acknowledges that she advocated the move. "As one of the anchor exhibitors at the Alexis Park, we tracked every dealer and every interview we conducted. Since year 2000, each year has seen a reduction in the number of dealers trekking to the Alexis Park. It's just too far away from the rest of the show. When a dealer calculates the value of an hour lost to commute time, the Alexis Park is one of the first to drop off their list of venues to visit.

"Surveys and discussions revealed that manufacturers were overwhelmingly in favor of the move because the Venetian offers much easier access to dealers. If the move had not happened, Thiel was determined to leave the Alexis Park and take a space of our own at the Venetian. It's adjacent to the Sands, the site of all press conferences and the widely attended Innovations exhibit that showcases the latest, best, brightest, and most advanced. We want to be in the flow of traffic, because we're confident of our ability to handle crowds."

Gornik further asserts that she constantly encourages members of the high-performance audio community to participate in meetings, which are open via teleconferencing. "Maybe it's a reflection of the state of audio in our society at large, but we have trouble getting people to participate and give input. It would be a win-win if we could get more people involved."

Meanwhile, next to the Alexis Park, over 80% of the T.H.E. Show's demo rooms at the St. Tropez have been sold, some to first-time exhibitors uncomfortable with the Venetian. Richard Beers, who is handling operations for T.H.E. Show while Show founder Mike Maloney, CEO of Gold & Silver, Inc., consults and lectures, contests that shuttle buses render the St. Tropez eminently accessible.

"Everyone knows us as a priority destination. We go after a specified niche audience, and they'll find us wherever they are. Our show is different. As far as I'm concerned, we've never competed with CES. We supply a different service. In order to keep peace in the family, I even struck a deal with the casino next door to the Venetian, offering rooms to Show attendees for $109/night."

Who knows who will float down the Grand Canal, and who will shuttle the way to the St. Tropez? Those tales are still to be told.

Stereophile will be blogging live from Las Vegas, starting Sunday January 7.