CES – Booth Babes, or Crowd Gatherers?


The Big Pro: It actually works.

We all know that sex sells, up to a point. If a pretty lady approaches you and invites you to visit a booth at a busy, crowded trade show, most men will probably go. At least, that’s what I noticed at a CEDIA show a few years back. Seriously, men spent major time at booths where attractive women were demonstrating bean bag chairs. For the record – not my company. It was the booth beside ours. My colleagues and I found this very amusing because really, what does a home integrator need with bean bag chairs? Their customers are certainly not going to buy them. These integrators signed up to company product alerts and talked with sales people who otherwise would be very lonely indeed.

Obviously, an attractive model does not drive sales. They are employed to attract eyeballs.

The Big Con: confusion.

The Forbes author suggests that the models hired to work at exhibitions should be professionally dressed. This is meant to ensure that all women at the show are treated with some respect. Unfortunately, my experience as an exhibitor does not quite agree with that approach.

So, at CEDIA a while back, my company did employ crowd gatherers. And the company also had a sort of ‘uniform’ for all employees at the booth. It was professional and modern, and applied also to the models working the isles for us. 

Here’s what happened. It created confusion. Once the attendees watched the presentation and were handed off to us, the actual company representatives, the female reps were ignored. Yes, me and my female colleagues were told things like “I’ve seen the product honey, but I have technical questions, I’ll just wait.”

Of course, the tone changed when some male colleagues had to hand the attendee over to one of us women because he could not answer some specific technical questions. Most of the time, the attendee would actually apologize and have a real conversation. They would also explain – they were confused. The female reps and the models were dressed in the same way, so they assumed we just had a lot of crowd gatherers. 

Most of the show’s attendees were men. Of course they stopped by. And I’m sure the female integrators appreciated being approached by a decently dressed woman. 

But, as someone representing the company on the technical side, it was really, very irritating. I would have liked bikini-clad models because it communicates the difference between the women there to draw the eyeballs and the women representing the company in an official capacity. What I would really like is a bit more diversity. Where are the attractive male models? 

If it won’t go away..

Are there alternatives?

Well, I already mentioned…diversity. I think the Forbes author is right that this is a general issue across different industries. Female company representatives start behind the eight ball thanks to the excessive use of scantily-clad female models. I’d also like to see a level playing field. Using models will not go away, so why not bring on some men? 

But OK, if you don’t want to use models? I’ve seen companies use artistic performances as a way to bring people to an exhibit. A well-done, small scale performance by Cirque du Soleil, musicians, and partnerships with other exhibitors… this is the place for creativity.

At a smaller show, where my company did not use crowd gatherers, my colleague and I chose a slightly different approach. At nearly every booth, attendees are confronted with large TV screens, all showing the latest special effects-laden blockbuster film. We were also equipped with huge TV screens. We chose classics. Strangely, people stopped in because they simply hadn’t seen the 1960’s Batman movie in decades. Who doesn’t love Adam West? 

The real issue is security.

What I found most disturbing in the post was not that women have some difficulty getting the right kind of attention at a trade show. That happens, its our job as individuals to get that respect.

Here’s the most disturbing passage:

“I began covering technology trade shows in 1997, and compared to COMDEX, CES seemed downright respectful of women. I opted out of attending COMDEX after that first visit because it was simply too oppressive; I hadn’t been groped or ogled like that since trying to walk unchaperoned through the markets of the Moroccan city of Fez. I do not exaggerate.”

Ew! Even at a bar, night club, cafe, whatever you call it in your country, I can reasonably expect a few extra hands in places they ought not to be. And I can also do something about it. I simply let the bouncer know, and voila! harassment handled.

I don’t call the models ‘Booth Babes’ because they are models who have a job. They teeter around the show on uncomfortable heels on my behalf. I thank them for it. In the ladies room, female company reps will chat with the models about their work. Seriously – the shoes they wear are nice for a few hours, but for a 12+ hour day? Many models buy their sky-high heels, and then have them altered so that they are wearable for extended periods. These are professionals. These ladies’ room chats are between professionals, just in different professions. 

As professionals, whether I’m talking about female attendees, journalists, company representatives or models, everyone deserves a safe working environment. As a thought experiment, imaging the outcome if some attendees were walking around randomly punching other men in the face? Its an extreme example, but the author is describing assault at trade shows. We all know that physical violence would be dealt with swiftly. The attendees would be removed, and unwelcome for the rest of the show. 

We should expect sexual violence to be treated in the same way. I’d prefer to see the CEA ensure that their events have some system in place so that there is some form of recourse. This starts with communicating expectations of conduct (I know, these should be obvious), then acting on infringements. We could help them along by reporting it. 

Finally, a conclusion:

Ultimately, no company starts their trade show planning with the phrase “How can we disrespect the women working for our company while simultaneously making female journalists uncomfortable in order to attract attendees to our expensive booth?”

It’s really just about attention. In this way, I do support the CEA position that companies should be free to market themselves as they choose. This does not excuse people from behaving decently, though communication and enforcement should be taken far more seriously.