CEA Offers Individual Memberships

The Consumer Electronics Association hosts a little event in Las Vegas every January called the “Consumer Electronics Show,” better known by its initials: CES. The original intent was to hold a trade show for electronics dealers, such as home stereos and televisions. Then the corporate side of the computer market got boring and Comdex went away, so the slack was picked up by CES and it became the biggest personal computer show in this country as well. And now it includes car electronics and mobile phones and digital cameras. If it has digital chips and is intended for consumer markets, chances are that it’s represented at CES.

The problem is that the CEA exists for the dealers and the manufacturers. It’s not really for the consumers (who figure so prominently in the organization’s name). If you are part of an eligible company, it is still an expensive proposition to join the organization. At least that was the case until now.

Last week, the CEA announced a new “Tech Enthusiast” membership. For $29 a year (discounted from $49), you can now get an individual membership. The organization is setting up a special website for these members where you’ll find news on the latest trends, discounts and give-aways, and more. You can find out more at www.CEAtechenthusiast.com for more information; enter the promotional code “CES2012” to get the discounted rate.

What does this mean for the CEA and the CES? In the short term, it’s probably a good move, but I’m not so sure about the long term. I went to Comdex (once; nobody ever said I had to go again). I also went to PC Expo in New York City many times; it was one of the top trade shows in the personal computer market for many years. PC Expo declined rather rapidly from its peak. The show floor got incredibly crowded. The show organizers seemed more interested in collecting admission fees than screening for the dealers who were the intended audience. As a result, an increasing portion of the crowd was made up of individual consumers, not dealers and corporate buyers. The aisles were clogged with people who were not prospects for large sales. This held little appeal for the exhibitors, and many of them moved to private display spaces in area hotels so that they could meet with their key prospects. As major exhibitors abandoned the show floor, the crowds thinned and other exhibitors dropped out, and the return on the investment shrank. And before long, the show blew away like dust over the Hudson River.

If the CEA encourages more consumers to attend CES (which is plenty crowded already), what implications will this have for the exhibitors who are trying to fill their order books? I have already seen more and more major brands move off-site, often into spaces that are not part of the official CES which means a loss of revenue for the CEA.

I can see how this new membership category will likely create new revenue for the CEA, I wonder if the gains might not be offset by decreased revenues from exhibitors who flee the exhibit halls and set up their own parallel event. I don’t expect CES to disappear any time soon — there isn’t any real alternative available in this country — but it will be worth watching to see the exhibitors’ reaction if the crowds increase.