When danger is at play, the only thing worse than no security is a false sense of security.
Last year, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and the shooting in San Bernardino, CA, the Consumer Electronics Association announced heightened security for the International
Consumer Electronics Show. Personally, I applauded the policy and felt it was long overdue. In fact, six years ago I wrote an editorial about the misalignment of CES security guards' priorities.
Even then, signage in and around the Las Vegas Convention Center stated that bags were subject to search, and attendees without press badges were not allowed to bring cameras onto the show floor. "While I never saw a single bag searched, at least a half-dozen guards practically tackled me to the ground as if my Canon digital camera was an actual cannon, fully loaded, fuse lit," I wrote back in 2010.
The day before the 2016 show opened, I was on site to tour a handful of exhibits, and security was out in full force. At least eight guards manned the main entrance to the LVCC's central hall, where my bag was searched (twice) and I was required to pass through a metal detector. Again on opening day, a similar scenario played out. But by the second day of CES, things were getting noticeably lax.
The percentage of attendee bags searched dropped dramatically from upwards of 90 percent to less than 20 percent at the checkpoints I watched. And by my estimate, far less than 10 percent were asked to pass through metal detectors, which were only stationed at the main entrance to the LVCC's Central Hall.
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the steps CES took, which include the aforementioned bag searches and metal detectors, along with vapor-sniffing dogs and armed security guards. Furthermore, as is customary for CES, show organizers ran the attendee list through the FBI database to diminish the chances of individuals on watch lists registering for the event.
But the disturbing reality is that anyone who wanted to access any of the LVCC's halls could easily have passed through the South Hall entrance, where there were no metal detectors and where bag searches were conducted with less frequency. And as long as they didn't carry a bag or purse, they wouldn't be subject to any security screening whatsoever. Additionally, because many discarded their badges as they left the LVCC, it would be entirely possible for someone who was denied registration to acquire a CES show badge.
Sadly, I believe security will continue to be an important consideration at trade shows, and I suspect bag searches and armed guards may be the new normal for the exhibition industry – at least when it comes to major events like CES that attract 100,000-plus attendees. And while the thought of instituting TSA-like measures at convention centers gives me pause, I support the efforts of venues and organizers who are taking on the task of safeguarding everyone involved. For whether we like it or not, terrorism poses a threat to not only our lives, but also our industry as a whole.
After the 9/11 attacks, trade show attendance dipped because people were reluctant to travel and uneasy about the idea of attending events. Those fears were warranted. Following the recent attacks in Paris, officials in several cities warned residents to avoid congregating in large groups – and the tens of thousands amassed at CES and other major trade shows definitely qualify as such.
When danger is at play, the only thing worse than no security is a false sense of security, as it allows individuals to let their guard down based on the assumption that any threat has been at least moderately mitigated. Thankfully, the annual CES opened and closed without any incidents, and the security measures implemented did little to impact traffic flow into or out of exhibit halls. But if security is a legitimate concern for our industry, we need to be realistic and admit that it's going to take a lot more to truly safeguard trade shows.