By the time you’ve reached the United States‘ east coast on the long Gatwick flight you think, good, nearly there, but you’re not. It’s an enormous country and even when you can spot the bizarre desert city of Lost Wages on the map there’s still a good few hours to go. Fortunately, the Virgin flight in economy – VS043 – was full of British hacks en route to the Consumer Electronics Show, and if there’s anything Brits can do it’s make something innocent resemble a public house.
There’s free booze on international flights. The only downside is you can’t smoke, but standing around and helping themselves to the plane’s beer supplies was the legion of masochistic marketing, PR and hacks flying over from London to subject themselves to the world’s biggest neon sign convention. The high altitude, as any respectable boozer or flier will be aware of, amplifies the pleasant effects of a cheeky one that turns it into a cheeky four. Touchdown, as ESPN’s loudmouth announcers would screech, here we are, in Nevada, it’s early afternoon and we’ve all been screwing up our sleeping patterns by staying up all night, drinking, 35,000 feet in the air and the convention’s opening is two days away.
It’s my first time in Vegas. British writer Gordon Kelly was sat next to me and talked me through a trick or two. He couldn’t read the in-flight magazine he writes for: that’s in business class and above only. Instead he leafs through the economy version with a bit from T3’s UK editor.
Vegas is an Adult Disneyland, Gordon tells me, and they push sex everywhere. Unhidden sleaze plainly on show, no stiff upper lip and no hiding it – one thing is for sure, it’ll be different from the leafy, sorry barren London suburbs where the only nod in that direction is channel surfing beyond Film 4 and the occasional encounter with Stringfellow hurrying down Oxford Street. You can’t eat your breakfast without being handed an escort card by one of the poor souls whose job it is to hand out escort cards, at breakfast.
The taxi driver picks me up from the methodically organised cab rank at McCarran International Airport and gets me lost, on purpose, on a straight drive up Paradise. I tip him regardless. Everybody tips, even for the dishonest crook who gave you the runaround on the highway for what should have been a ten minute trip. Not the Paris, not Caesar’s Palace or the Venetian, not Circus Circus or the Wynn but up to 3500 Paradise to the Best Western Mardi Gras, a small but interesting joint that promises $5 bloody marys, $2 Coronas and hotdogs that are no longer available.
I’m tired out of my mind and dump my bags before heading back down to the bar and continue as I mean to continue with a draught bud, and hop online. You can smoke at the bar. It’s unbelievable. The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” drifts out from a nearby slot machine and makes itself my unofficial soundtrack. I get my bearings and head out with TG Daily’s Aharon Etengoff to Caesar’s Palace where he shows me to and fro. We drink some more and eventually head off to Mandalay Bay to see the now-defunct Dirk Meyer attempt a comedy bit with Joel McHale who confesses he has “no idea what the f*** I’m talking about here.”
This sad two was tasked with luring journalists away from the glitz of AMD’s enormous party to another, where, yes, the bar is open. You still tip the bartenders anyway. Freelancer and TG Daily hackette Lydia Leavitt and I forced them into this photo opportunity where they were less than comfortable.
Sylvie Barak of RCR-Wireless arrives with well established pornography queen Raven Alexis in tow with her husband. They’re working on a project together called AroundThe.net so she’s around for both AVN, the adult industry event, and CES to put the frighteners on the starched collars.
Flying means you can expect to wake up in the middle of the night, every night until your body gets used to the time change. When you’re finally used to it is generally when you head back. Today was press day, or it would be when the sun creeped into the sky – a legion of briefings held at the Venetian and time for some work. First CES, first work of the week. The amount of press alone bordered that fine line between staggering and unbelievable, queues snaked and there were frenzied rushes to hear this CEO or that CEO talk up the products you’re going to see, tomorrow. Nvidia gave out box lunches. Samsung queues stretched and the public relations teams were in a state of worried prioritising, shall we let this person cut the line? Which latecomers get wristbands?
TechEye pushed to the front of all of them. We left our manners back in Britain.
There’s no way to prepare for the abstract city of sin until you’re there. The locals were sour-faced but grinning through forced smiles and gleaming, alien teeth, service with a smile for a quick buck by way of a tip. It’s a city in the desert, its profits are from hotels and holidayers, it was only day two but already it was time to turn tail and head back – that’s how I felt. Two days isn’t enough but then it is. Plenty to see and do, if you’ve got the money, and old Vegas caters for those who don’t.
Day three and the gates to CES proper are open. Again it is hard to describe the staggering scale without a first-hand visit but we’ll try. It’s a city, but there are no general stores or post offices, just taxi after taxi after limo after company-sponsored journalist bus ferrying folk back and forth between three enormous venues.
It’s split into North, South and Central halls – South was the first we bumped into so the first we checked out. Just the lobby is enormous. There are uniformed members of the CEA in yellow vests bellowing directions and where to pick up your badge – there are hordes of people moving in every direction, up and down the escalators, left right, back and forth, speaking every language you can think of. The hussle and bustle is unrelenting and hand sanitiser is necessary. If you shake somebody’s hand, clean yours. The flu has the potential to spread faster than the bubonic plague at a rat convention.
The South Hall stretches on and on in a straight seemingly infinite line peppered by booths vying for your attention as long as you’re important enough – so not ours. “Booth babes” straddle the paths smiling for money and drawing eyes. And this is the least offensive, the neatest and the easiest to navigate, scoring somewhere low on the overwhelming charts compared to its brash cousins next door. Making your way out again through the crowded interconnect or out front you can trundle along to the central hall if you can squeeze past the other visitors. The street is easier to get around, the South Hall serviced as it is by a carbon copy of Woody Allen, neurotically complaining about his lack of change and hawking ice-cold water for triple the price. He was just charming but declined to have his photo taken.
Imagine a lost moth finding its way into a brightly lit office open late at night, fluttering towards the flame as they say. Walking through the front doors of the Central Hall, you are that moth, and you are surrounded by towering inferno. Every direction you look, every sense is assaulted by flat screens and loudspeakered propaganda. It’s like how Neo must have felt in the Matrix when he downloaded knowledge of literally everything in the world all at once. They say the portions are bigger in the States and compared to the UK’s comparatively tiny trade shows CES is a terrific monstrosity, a sprawling neon mutant child, high on sugar and awake in the middle of the night, it’s throwing a tantrum and it has LED panels for eyes. The garish spawn of hell and limbo with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga.
You can escape if it’s all too much and it is guaranteed to be an overwhelming experience, but not easily enough – the CEA has set up golf carts to ferry the less able, elderly or easily amused, mostly the latter, between the halls and that in itself takes more than a few minutes. You lose your sense of direction and all that’s left is a dancing man in an Xbox Kinect booth with no clue to North or South, left or right, or eventually right and wrong when you find yourself pushing past the horde, elbows up, in search of bottled water.
Was the exit by Panasonic or LG? Do you edge your way to the end and trace a line around the periphery where the Chinese iPhone knock-offs have set up their booths, or treat it like a maze, bearing left until there’s a way free? Only that unquenchable lust for a hard drink will do you right. Back to the Best Western, back to the bar and back to the internet. There’s no internet at CES. Vegas can’t take the strain and the specially set-up press wi-fi is no different. TechCrunch carried a base station around so they could get the scoops when they needed to.
And eventually you escape, the sound of a billion Americanised PR pitches ringing in your ear. You escape, but you’re still in Las Vegas. And it’s incredible.
This is part one. Part two next week.