Tucked among the 2,700 exhibitors at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week will be nearly 100 fledgling start-ups that represent a first for the 45-year-old trade event: Many don’t yet have products to sell.
The experiment, called Eureka Park, occupies just a tiny portion of the 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space, but it’s the latest attempt by the Consumer Electronics Association to keep the show and its membership relevant in a rapidly changing industry.
“We want to make sure we’re around for another 45 or 50 years, and what better way to do that than help promote new companies,” said Karen Chupka, senior vice president of events and conferences.
The Arlington-based association has made an aggressive effort to broaden its appeal and roster of members in recent years, expanding the categories of companies it represents to include automakers, major retailers and medical device manufacturers, among others.
That approach is most evident at CES, where the gamut of gizmos — if you can even call them all that — is staggering. Tech enthusiasts will find no shortage of traditional consumer electronics, including tablets, smartphones, televisions and game consoles. But there also will be dishwashers. And electric vehicles. Heart monitors, too.
In many ways, consumer technology has become so ubiquitous that it ceases to become its own industry, raising questions about its future. Indeed, though this year’s gadget pageant is shaping up to be the second or third largest in history, one longtime mainstay, Microsoft, is scaling back. This will be the last year the software giant will deliver a major keynote or maintain a substantial presence.
Gary Shapiro took the helm of what would eventually be renamed the Consumer Electronics Association in 1991 when the organization counted just 60 member companies. With 2,200 on its roster today, it ranks among the country’s largest trade groups.
“There has been phenomenal convergence,” Shapiro said. “A telephone is also a camera. A TV is also connected to the Internet. That convergence is something we knew would happen, and we positioned the show for it and our association.”
That diverse membership produces a loud chorus of voices on policy matters here in Washington, where CEA weighs in on topics from Internet piracy to free trade. The association compiles market research and plays an influential role in debates over industry standards.
But size isn’t always an asset, said John Graham, president and chief executive of ASAE, formerly known as the American Society for Association Executives.
“You can become too big and fail as an association,” Graham said, not referring to CEA in particular. Members’ conflicting priorities can leave an organization tongue-tied or at risk of divisions that force leadership to choose a side, he said.
“I could see where having a larger tent would make more sense,” Graham said of CES, saying more participants might broaden a trade show’s appeal. “If you’re trying to govern within that model, I would think the interests between a Ford Motor Co. and a Sony would be very different.”
“I don’t know that it can’t work,” he said. “I just don’t know how it would work.”
Not all of the organization’s recruitment efforts have proven successful. Last month CEA abandoned an attempt to convert technology consumers and enthusiasts into dues-paying members because the initiative was too costly and not received well.
Shapiro contends that the association’s members are aligned on most major policy initiatives despite the diversity of industries it represents. Many of its biggest members, such as Comcast or Microsoft, also hire lobbyists to pursue their own unique concerns.
Still, there have been conflicts.
CEA chose to remain silent on AT&T’s attempted merger with T-Mobile, for example. Leaders also changed their years-old stance on a nationwide Internet sales tax, opting to support the measure in part because the group’s members now include retailers.
“That was a big change, and there still is a little bit of a split there,” Shapiro said. But “no one, including some people who I thought would, has said they’re pulling out of the association over it.”
An innovation strategy
If CEA has a unified agenda, it is in the pursuit of policies that favor innovation.
Shapiro prides himself on being more vocal than most in his criticism of the Obama administration and what he said CEA leaders consider to be one of the most anti-business presidencies in recent history.
“It’s been such a horrible three years, frankly, for business generally,” Shapiro said. “It’s not just the economy. It’s the fact that we’re viewed as the enemy, and I can give you thousands of examples of that.”