CES 2010: The Worst CES Experience I’ve Ever Had

CES: it’s the geek Mecca. This year, for me, it was a train-wrecka (har har!). Join me on my journey of unpacking the frustrations and tribulations of a CES I’d rather forget. I need some catharsis from the five days I spent in Vegas, so this is more for me than you, but perhaps you’ll find it entertaining in a “driving past a car wreck” sort of way.

When I went to CES 2009, I posted quite a few videos of what I saw there. Producing those videos in 1080p h.264 on my Dell XPS M1330 took a long time, so on December 9th I placed an order for a pimped-out Core i7-based Dell Studio 17. Plenty of time before CES, right? Wrong. Despite calling in a favour with a contact I have in Dell’s CTO office, as of December 30th I still didn’t have the laptop – the estimated ship date was January 8th, three days after I left for CES. Switching to plan “B”, I went out and purchased an HP dv7, a $2000 Core i7-based laptop with a 17.3″ screen and a weight of seven pounds. I was planning on bringing this beast of a laptop with me to CES to leave in my hotel room for video production, and I’d carry a netbook me me for day to day CES reporting. Then I started to hear about the security restrictions after the December 25th “underwear bomber” was foiled, and my already rocky start to CES prep got worse.

On January 4th, a day before I left for CES, I spent two hours doing research online and on the phone, trying to determine what I could and couldn’t bring on the plane from Canada to the USA. As best as I could tell, the Canadian rules were the strictest in the world – my peers flying in from Europe were able to carry on bags with no particular restrictions. The morning of the 5th I spent an hour crafting a great article about how frustrating the confusion and lack of information coming out of CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) was, and Firefox locked up and I lost my entire article. Here’s the short medium-length version: I spent 30 minutes on the phone with a CATSA agent – after trying for two hours to get through their constantly-busy phone line – trying to determine what was allowed and what wasn’t. The initial, and sole, list of allowed items didn’t include mobile phones, MP3 players, headphones, or even books. It listed laptops, but not laptop bags. It mentioned a “small purse”, but no size dimensions. How was I going to carry two laptops with me?

The CATSA agent I talked to refused to confirm whether any of the items I had questions about – phone, MP3 player, headphones – were for sure allowed. He said they “Should be”. You don’t go through airport security with items you think will be allowed on the plane, because if you’re wrong, you either don’t get on the plane, or your lose the item you’re carrying. Who’s going to risk that with an HTC HD2, a Zune HD, a Panasonic GF-1 digital camera, a pair of Ultimate Ears headphones, and a Dean Koontz book that you really want to know the ending of? I asked for the dimensions of the small purse to see if I could find a similar bag, and the agent said they had no information on dimensions. He suggested I carry a “man purse” if I had one – but couldn’t tell me the size of said “man purse”. I kid you not. I investigated how much it would cost me in fees if I were to cancel my whole trip, and decided I’d make the best of it and still go.

So I went to the airport with all of the above jammed into the pockets of my leather jacket, carrying my Dell XPS M1330 laptop in a neoprene sleeve. I returned the HP dv7 to the store I bought it from before I left. Everything else – including my Canon HF100 video camera – was packed in my suitcase. I arrived at the airport 2.5 hours early, expecting to see long lines. Instead, I breezed through the ticket counter and US customs. Well, sort of – I had a small detour into US border security secondary inspection for some unknown reason where I just sat on a bench for five minutes and no one talked to me before telling me I could go. I arrived at security 15 minutes after I started at the airport.

What did I see? Security lines that were even lighter than the last time I travelled. Even more shocking? A bunch of people were carrying laptop bags, camera bags, and purses that I’d define as anything but small. Here I was, trying to be Mr. Responsible, doing my research, changing my content creation plans for CES, and the people who evidently didn’t know any better or who thought they’d push their luck were able to get through carrying bags I was told would definitely not be allowed. I saw people with big, honking 17″ laptops in shoulder bags. As a footnote to this part of the story, post-CES start date (Jan. 8th) CATSA decided to publish a PDF with all sorts of details about what’s allowed, including the exact dimensions of permissible “small purse”, and that laptop bags are permitted. Thank you CATSA for the lemon juice on the paper cut you slashed into me.

Once I made it to CES, I thought “OK, let’s make the best of this.” I was staying at the Imperial Palace, which, while it has a great location, was far worse of a hotel than I was expecting. I tried to make light of it with a Twitter meme that didn’t catch on like I’d hoped it would, but I still had some fun. Wednesday and Thursday were pretty good days, though I managed to overtax myself on Thursday to the point of near-paralysis on Friday. Thursday’s stupidity was me walking the show floor for two hours, then three of us walking from the CES show floor over to The Hilton seeking the sustenance of food and drink, failing miserably (The Hilton has very little to offer in that regard that we could find), walking back to the CES show floor, then going to an evening event and walking back from it. Friday morning my body was such a wreck I could barely move.

By Friday night I was feeling better and headed to a CNTRSTG event sponsored by DisplayLink. While there I was treated to a fine meal and had a good time chatting with my peers. By the time I got back to my hotel, however, I was starting to feel a bit strange. Two hours later I felt a touch ill, but thought it was the gut-wrenching two final episodes of The Shield season seven that I watched. When I woke up at 2am puking my guts out, I realized it wasn’t the gripping cop drama, but food poisoning or a flu bug. Saturday felt like the longest day of my life as I went through the classic flu symptoms: fever, chills, and no-orifice-shall-be-spared expulsion of what seemed like more than my body weight. I felt like death, but was helped along by the delivery of a few bottles of fluids from a friend.

By Sunday morning the worst of it was over, and I loaded up on Pepto-bismal and Imodium to fly home. The Las Vegas airport was a ghost town, with no lines for security. I sat there for nearly three hours before the flight boarded. In my delirious state I accidentally deleted (and now can’t recover) what was perhaps one of my only interesting videos – it was of an HP Snapdragon-powered netbook prototype – but at least I could carry a small laptop bag with me on the way back. Hooray.

As I stood at the luggage conveyor belt in Calgary, weak and exhausted, it didn’t take me long to notice that I was the only person left waiting for his luggage. That’s right, Air Canada had lost my bag on a direct flight from Las Vegas to Calgary. I shuffled, zombie-like, over to the baggage counter, ready to become an angry brain-eating zombie at not yet being able to go see my wife and baby boy waiting outside, and was informed that there were any number of reasons why my bag wasn’t there. The TSA could have scanned it and found something suspicious; Air Canada could have not had room for it on the flight, or maybe just lost it. At that point, I didn’t care. I stumbled outside, hugged my wife and child, went home, and slept for 12 hours.

The next evening (Monday), an Air Canada courier dropped off my suitcase – reeking of cigarette smoke – and thankfully all of my electronics were still inside. CES 2010 was a complete failure from a news coverage and health perspective for me, though I did manage to network and meet some of the right people for the next Thoughts Media site to launch (there’s your treat for reading to the end of this long-ass rant). I can’t think of very many things that I truly regret in life, but if I could go back in time to January 5th, I’d tell myself to skip CES 2010 entirely.