When 160,000 people descend into Las Vegas to peddle their wares or visit the over 32,000 exhibits spread across two million square feet of convention space, they need a tour guide.
There are CNET tours and MediaLink tours and tours in Chinese and a dozen others that jostle for lucrative fees (although when expense accounts are involved, traditional senses of market value are no longer relevant). Harried guides carry eight-foot-tall plastic banners with their corporate color and name that billow in the air conditioning.
And the king among these guides is Shelly Palmer, who is one of the official tour guides of CES.
I sat with him between tours for a few minutes at his station, a Shelly-Palmer branded quadrant of the main show entryway. He wore a buttoned-down shirt with a bright orange Narrative on his chest (a small “always-on” camera that documents his day). Yesterday, it was angled so it often peered into people’s noses. Today, he had rearranged it and hoped he’d have a better view. I did too.
He said his role is to craft a story from the maelstrom — and explain to people what they really need to take away from the noisy circus of the showroom floor. This year, he toured 5,300 people through the corridors of the Las Vegas Convention Center, charging $1,000 for an hour-and-a-half, in-person tour with him or one of his tour “analysts,” or $350 for an audio tour, which about half his clients take.
“What you’re trying to do is make order from chaos. What’s the parlor trick and what’s the paradigm shift,” he said. “CES is a seventh-century bazaar, and all the vendors are calling out to you — ‘Buy my TV, quantum dots, 4K, SUHD!’ But what does all the noise mean?”
CES president and CEO Gary Shapiro said he saw more tour guides this year than ever before. “There’s so many tour guides now I can’t keep track — the American ones, the Chinese ones,” he said. “And not just the people you’d think. Rupert Murdoch, Bob Iger, they come and they want a tour too.”
Palmer, whose main business is a corporate advisory firm and who reportedly has 645,000 subscribers to his daily tech news email blast, said the tours started naturally with people simply following him around. His fan club slowly grew. He sends out trend reports and curates power-player dinners for different groups like “Israeli dealmakers” and “the consumer packaging community.” In 2010, he had a partnership with the competitor strategic advisory firm MediaLink, but it soured. After that, he became the official tour guide of CES in 2012.
“Years ago, I used to walk the floor and because of whatever it is I’m supposed to know, people used to walk around with me,” he said. “Word got out I knew where everything was. I live, breathe and sleep this stuff. So, I started bringing people with me.”
He said people need tours because, for the average executive, the showroom floor is an undifferentiated barrage of wearables and flashing lights.
“Are you going to walk past 15 booths of wearable wristbands and figure out which one is best? No,” he said. “You want to know what the wristband means for your business. We are in the business of knowing this stuff. Bright shiny objects are not what we’re about.”
Do companies pay to be included as a stop on his tour?
“Absolutely not,” he said.
They could, however, pay this year to be in the area where tours gather, as the startup Magisto’s CMO Reid Genauer said he was doing, giving demos to those who waited. Palmer said this is something he may not do again.
Still, is he worried about the rise of all these competitor tour guides?
“I applaud anyone who can make order from chaos,” he said.
And most of the corporate deal-making I saw happened off the floor, in luxury hotel suites that companies take over. Why go to the floor at all?
“If you want to viscerally understand what’s happening,” he said. “There are no crystal balls, but if there is the closest thing to it is walking the floor of CES.”
He also leads tours at Mobile World Congress, CTIA and the National Association of Broadcasters conference.
“Without a guide, I think people are overwhelmed when they walk in. Or they just shut down. Information overload. They shut down and …”
He stopped mid-sentence. In the distance, he saw a group from MediaLink, whom he earlier referred to as “party planners,” and who have since become his competitor. They held their red banners high, marching toward him with a passel of executives from packaged goods giant Unilever to drop off to Palmer.
“Get the MediaLink flags out of here,” he joked to one of his associates. He listed the executives he saw walking with them.
He didn’t say good-bye as he jumped up and walked out to greet the approaching horde.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.