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Are AV Tradeshows a Thing of the Past?

by Jerry Del Colliano December 29, 2020
CES 2021 Virtual

CES 2021 Virtual

Even before the outbreak of a global, viral respiratory pandemic, your local stereo store was likely sick in its own right. In the heyday of the AV hobby, there were brick and mortar stores at the A-level, B-level and more obscure-brand-laden C-list retailers. In many major cities in the United States, one could find most of the best audiophile and home theater brands well represented with active demos that allowed you, the AV enthusiast, to experience the audio and video goodness that inspired decades’ worth of system upgrades.

1-ARC-Preamp

To the non-enthusiast, the idea of selling your $4,000 preamp to get a $7,500 one could sound absurd. To those who have heard and experienced the difference, it makes you want to save every spare penny to make the upgrade. The problem is, without the experience of hearing the difference, it can be hard to understand what the benefits of such an upgrade would be. Sure, you could do it on speculation, but that in-store experience is so important.

The problem with the in-store experience is that so many traditional brick and mortar stores are gone, or so limited in their scope that they can’t provide the goosebumps experience, thus fewer and fewer people have the bug to buy more and more specialty AV gear. One factor that caused so many AV stores to go away was the rise of the custom installer. Why pay for rent, “flooring” gear, overhead, a good bit of insurance, labor and whatnot, when you can sell just as much gear and bill more profitable labor, all with the client giving you the money up front? Many legendary stereo stores morphed into this model in the mid-2000s, many of them didn’t make it through the economic downturn of 2009, and are now completely out of the business. Many AV stores that followed the more traditional model struggle to compete with online competition. Amazon.com today is a viable place to buy AV gear. In 18 months of offering affiliate links to Amazon.com at my old publication, we went from two-figure monthly sales to deep five-figure monthly sales. Brands now sell direct to the consumer and offer far better value by cutting out the retail chain. They have lower prices, more money for new product development, better marketing, and killer customer service. This too hurt the traditional retailers in the specialty AV space. One more factor, especially in the big cities, is that real estate for a retail store was getting more and more expensive.

sound by singer

I remember longtime Manhattan audiophile retail icon, Andy Singer, telling me how hard it was to sustain an 8,100-square-foot space in the city. In recent years, most NYC stereo stores have become appointment-only salons that are no longer on the first floor of retail buildings. How times have changed.

4-CES-AlexisPark-RHB

One of the best solutions for all of us AV enthusiasts pre-COVID-19 was to travel. The big cities still had good, in-person representations of the best gear, and a drive or quick flight was often worth it. COVID-19 ruined all of that. The same goes for the growing number of audiophile shows and CE trade shows, which now are irrelevant without the all-important in-person experience.

For many decades, CES was the Super Bowl of AV. I went to 24 shows without missing one, but I no longer attend. At CES in the old days, the Alexis Park and then the Venetian were packed with active audiophile demos from nearly every audiophile company you could think of and from dozens more that you’ve never heard of. You might wait 30 to 45 minutes to get on an elevator to the 29th floor (unless you did like me and take the OTHER bank of elevators with no line to the 28th floor and walk up a flight of stairs) just to see all of the goodies. The last time there was a CES, literally all of this was gone. It has been replaced by IoT (Internet of Things) companies, driverless car data resellers and anything AI. Forward-thinking technology overtook retro-looking and retro-thinking audiophiles at good old CES. Video was still very much on display at CES, but whoever knows if that cool prototype 16K monitor is anything other than a PR stunt in a $10,000,000 booth? More often than not, that is the case and, just like a concept car, the product isn’t ever actually made or sold.

2-CEDIA

With CES being fully irrelevant to the specialty AV enthusiast, even pre-COVID, that left CEDIA, yet another business-to-business trade show, which caters specifically to the aforementioned custom installation crowd. The show was moved to non-union towns in cities that were less and less easy to access for the big CI markets, such as Northern and Southern California. There were some “sound rooms” doing live AV demos, but companies selling shades, AV trucks, and wiggly metal thingies to help pull wires outnumbered the more traditional AV demos by easily a ratio of five to one. CEDIA wasn’t the easiest ticket to get for the non-industry person, and now with COVID-19, the idea of 30,000 people meeting in one place is reserved only for a Trump rally, as it is outright banned in most states worried about public health.

The audiophile shows have all been canceled, too – at least, the in-person ones. I learned a hard lesson about the whole “hotel take-over” model when I tried to host my own show in Marina Del Rey a few years back. Pre-sale online sites helped “business hotels” kill it Sunday through Thursday nights, and then the venues were pretty empty for the long weekend. Smart wedding people (I say elope and save all the money) found these hotels willing to bend over backwards to host an event in their off time. The same went for boutique consumer shows, such as an audiophile event. You could get the hotel to give you X number of hotel rooms for a guarantee of Y nights of room stays. You could get all of the exhibit space thrown in as an added value, as the idea of having the hotel’s parking, restaurants and bars packed only helped make the bottom line of the hotel look better and better. That was all true, until the rise of online travel sales. Nearly overnight, hotels could sell that off-peak hotel rooms at somewhat discounted rates but without any of the concessions needed to accommodate an event like an audiophile show. Gone was the moving furniture. Gone was the incredible wear and tear on the property. In was 95-plus-percent occupancy rates, thus making finding a hotel that isn’t a bedbug-infested nightmare much, much harder in the modern world. Then throw in COVID-19, and see how many people want (or legally are allowed) to congregate in person. The need for audiophile shows to keep an aging and always backwards-looking hobby alive is clear. The ability to have one might just require a trustworthy, properly-vetted, non-political vaccine, and that day isn’t coming to the masses until at least spring of 2021. I think most of us would be happy to see said solution not be rushed to ensure safety over expediency as well as to ensure healthcare workers and the elderly are taken care of first.

CEDIA-2020

There have been attempts to take these shows online, like a Zoom meeting. And most have been a disaster. Access to enough gear is only part of the problem. The real issue is that, while you can make a good sale pitch for consulting services on a FaceTime chat, you can’t express the power of a 2,000-watt, 18-inch subwoofer when hearing the audio through the speakers in your laptop. It isn’t the same thing. Moreover, it is harder and harder to reach the AV enthusiast audience. It isn’t as simple as tweeting out a catchy hashtag to get a big audience or running a bunch of contests to get people to watch your Youtube livestream. Most publications have access to these, but partnering with them is going to be key for any virtual show to have critical mass. Will that happen before the vaccine is distributed to the masses and trusted? Hard to tell, but I doubt it.

Tell us what AV shows you miss the most. Is your favorite local store still in business? Can you shop there with COVID-19 rules in place? Have you been on these virtual shows and, if so, what did you think? Will you return to traveling to hear audio and experience home theater, be it at regional shows or in a bigger city with more active demos? Let us know in the comments below, as we always love to hear from you.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

highfigh posts on January 22, 2021 14:40
Cos, post: 1453460, member: 14477
My point is that they can offer a hybrid model, which some trade shows are implementing. For example they have opened the showroom floor specific hours/days for GP, but a lot of the education is vendor only. They also have meeting rooms designated on the showroom floor for business meetings. It has worked well for several shows to capture additional revenue to help offset event costs. That and the fact that society is social media driven their are a lot of influencers they can use to help promote their products that are not part of the industry.

In the current climate of having things made offshore to keep prices down and meet demand, they wouldn't spend the money to do both.

If people weren't against paying for the time needed for consultations, B&M stores wouldn't have died.
Cos posts on January 22, 2021 11:29
highfigh, post: 1453449, member: 36433
But the point is, trade shows aren't exhibitions for the general public because having to talk to people who aren't in the business takes time from doing business and it was common for people to say they were in the industry, just to get info they shouldn't have access to. It's almost impossible to meet with dealers from the whole country at a national show as it is, without having non-trade people picking their brains. If they want to do one day for the general public, it could be their choice but I think it would jam up the works if they could be there every day. People can be pretty irritable after four days of the noise at CES and other shows like them, so people would need to avoid taking too much time. I think it would be better to hold regional expos.

My point is that they can offer a hybrid model, which some trade shows are implementing. For example they have opened the showroom floor specific hours/days for GP, but a lot of the education is vendor only. They also have meeting rooms designated on the showroom floor for business meetings. It has worked well for several shows to capture additional revenue to help offset event costs. That and the fact that society is social media driven their are a lot of influencers they can use to help promote their products that are not part of the industry.
highfigh posts on January 22, 2021 10:33
Cos, post: 1453411, member: 14477
You are correct, as least from my research, they did an experiment in 1993 and opened it to the public that year. When I researched CES, it states that it is not open to the public, only people that are 18 years or older and affiliated with the consumer tech industry. (including friends, family and children). Please correct me if I am wrong. I have only been going since 2018, I should have stated since I have STARTED GOING. My point being is trade shows need to evolve. I do a lot of EmTech TRADE SHOWS for work (pre-covid) and I have seen some evolve to invite the general public, as they do a lot of panel education.

But the point is, trade shows aren't exhibitions for the general public because having to talk to people who aren't in the business takes time from doing business and it was common for people to say they were in the industry, just to get info they shouldn't have access to. It's almost impossible to meet with dealers from the whole country at a national show as it is, without having non-trade people picking their brains. If they want to do one day for the general public, it could be their choice but I think it would jam up the works if they could be there every day. People can be pretty irritable after four days of the noise at CES and other shows like them, so people would need to avoid taking too much time. I think it would be better to hold regional expos.
Cos posts on January 22, 2021 07:41
highfigh, post: 1453396, member: 36433
CES is starting to open to the public? They started that over 30 years ago.

You are correct, as least from my research, they did an experiment in 1993 and opened it to the public that year. When I researched CES, it states that it is not open to the public, only people that are 18 years or older and affiliated with the consumer tech industry. (including friends, family and children). Please correct me if I am wrong. I have only been going since 2018, I should have stated since I have STARTED GOING. My point being is trade shows need to evolve. I do a lot of EmTech TRADE SHOWS for work (pre-covid) and I have seen some evolve to invite the general public, as they do a lot of panel education.
highfigh posts on January 22, 2021 03:36
Cos, post: 1453283, member: 14477
Agree, Trade shows are usually not open to public, normally, but more and more i.e. CES, are starting to open to the general public, hence my comment on evolve. Chicago Trade Shows are very cost prohibitive, which is frustrating. I worked an event in Chicago where is was requried to have a union elevator person who was making $50.00/hr on weekends for example to press a button. This is why less and less people will exhibit in Chicago.

CES is starting to open to the public? They started that over 30 years ago.
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