“It was cold, bleak and biting weather.” — Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
You bet your sweet bippy it was cold. (Millennials, Google it.) I am not talking about London near Scrooge’s counting house circa 1843, but in Chicago the first week of January 1977—an astounding 39 years ago this week.
I was there. I was the audio buyer for a New England-based company named Lechmere, a division of Dayton-Hudson which ultimately became Target. We went to every show. There were group (NATM) meetings to attend and scores of appointments with vendors big and small. In those days you actually wrote business at the show, a lot of business. But this one turned out differently.
CES 1967 NY, Then Chicago '74
First, a little history of what we now know as the world’s largest trade show. The inaugural show was in New York City, June 1967. It was based in the Americana, Hilton and later the Warwick Hotels and was run by the Home Entertainment section of the Electronic Industries Association or EIA. This group eventually became the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) that we know today.
That premiere event drew 17,500 people or what is now considered a bad year for CEDIA. CES remained in Manhattan until 1970. By the way, according to The New York Times, the big buzz at that last N.Y. show was blank cassette tapes with “fidelity good enough for your kid to copy music off the air and sell it to his friends.” They called it “juvenile piracy.”
Then it was off to Chicago and the rebuilt brand-new McCormick Place. CES would have started in Chicago back in the summer of ’67 but a fire started by an errant coffee pot on display at the Housewares Show burned the original McCormick to the ground that winter. (And we think it’s only our stuff that dangerously overheats.)
Speaking of the Housewares Show, Gary Shapiro’s predecessor, the late great Jack Wayman, got the idea back in 1973 to piggyback on that show and hold a smaller version of CES in January. The consumer electronics business was in hyper-expansion mode and many larger manufacturers were taking space at the housewares event to dump stuff that didn’t sell through before Christmas. (Remember, these were business-writing shows.)
In January 1974 the first Winter CES was born in the ballroom of the massive Chicago Hilton hotel. It unofficially spilled over to other grand hotels on or near Michigan Avenue like the Drake, the Palmer House, the Pick-Congress and the infamous Blackstone. It was, as planned, a “dump show” at first, but more and more new merchandise was introduced as the years went on. Some department store buyers ended up in the Windy City for over two straight weeks to attend both CES and the Housewares Show that followed.
January 1977 CES: Cold, Cold, Cold
Then came January 1977. My first morning wake-up call went something like this. (Keep in mind, live hotel operators actually called your room back then.)
Hotel operator: “Goooood Morning. It’s 6:45 a.m. The temperature is minus 18 degrees and the wind chill is minus 45 degrees. The City of Chicago recommends you don’t leave the building.”
Me: “Are you joking?”
Her: “No Honey, it’s damn cold out there. Trust me. Do not go outside.”
The winter of 1977 is considered the third or fourth worst winter in Chicago’s history. It was below freezing for 40 days in a row and below zero for 14 consecutive days within those 40. The weather destroyed whatever little spirit the January Chicago CES had left.
“We froze our asses off,” Jack Wayman recalled. “I had 500 beds brought into the Hilton because you couldn’t even get across the street. It was then I decided, ‘Let’s go to Vegas, gang – can we do that?’ The manufacturers balked. 'Oh, no. The dealers will gamble and never come to the show.'”
Vegas had been lobbying every major trade organization to fill their new Convention Center adjoining Elvis’ Las Vegas Hilton. It had been built, befitting the town, largely on spec. A few minor events were booked before the doors opened but nothing big. CES was the coveted jewel. Las Vegas, the city, gambled and drew 21.
The two-show/two-city concept continued into the 1990s. Every year Vegas got bigger while Chicago got smaller. Vendors balked at everything in Chi-town from exorbitant rates for rundown hotels to the crooked usurious unions. And Rush Street was no competition for the Strip to anyone save jazz aficionados.
In a desperate attempt to resuscitate the summer show, some genius at the CEA thought it a swell idea to let the public in for the final day. This was in 1992. I remember middle management and training types cringing at the thought. They had to face the public masses while the suits went home. It was a horror show but the stubborn CEA tried it again in '93.
That bullheadedness was likely the straw that broke the show’s back. Or maybe the CEA didn’t like that the show was being derided as either “the mistake” or “wake at the lake.” In 1994, the CEA said “no mas” to Chicago. They had a grand plan to rotate the summer show from city to city but that never worked out either. Chicago convention officials predicted that the CEA would come crawling back. Never happened.
Viva Las Vegas! Las Vegas Rules
As a postscript I have to give the CTA its props. Many a show has come up to dethrone CES but none have succeeded. Sure, Vegas has added cameras, white goods, robots and a lot of automobiles, but I, for one, think that keeps the show fresh while keeping potential competitive promoters at bay. Remember Comdex? I’ll bet you do. How about the first and only IHF (Institute of High Fidelity) Show in Atlanta in 1978? No? Someday I’ll write about that dumpster fire all by itself.
In any event, those and other trade shows were predicted to eclipse, surpass and ultimately destroy CES. Never gonna happen.
Viva CES! CES rules.