These unsung heroes make CES possible (and tolerable)

Behind the CEOs, salespeople and press attending the tech confab, cabbies, bartenders and stagehands help prop up the action -- and keep you sane.

It's going to be a good week for Shane Olin. As my colleague and I sit in his Las Vegas taxi, the 32-year-old driver talks about the haul of passengers he'll be picking up in the next few days. Vegas is always a bustling town, but every year just after the holidays it gets even more crowded. The reason: CES, the annual tech trade show that invades the city every year.

Olin has been driving cabs in Vegas for six years. He'll give around 25 rides over an 11-hour shift during CES, up from about 16 rides during a normal week, he says. Ninety-five percent of his rides during CES are for people attending the show.

"You get people from countries you never heard of," says Olin, who's originally from Seattle. "Then I Google the places after they get out."

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Shane Olin, a Vegas cab driver, sees a nice uptick in passengers during CES.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

For him, it's more than just driving people around. "Cab drivers are the ambassadors of the streets of Vegas," he adds.

CES is a massive, massive production. There were over 177,000 attendees last year, from 81 percent of the world's countries. Almost 4,000 companies set up booths, covering 2.47 million net square feet of exhibit space.

So yeah, lots of people trek to the desert every January in search of luck, publicity, investors, stories and cheap (or expensive) thrills.

But behind the CEOs, salespeople, reporters and celebrities, there are unsung heroes who help make the weeklong descent into vaporware and casino lights as tolerable as possible. I'm talking about the cab drivers, security guards, bartenders and cocktail waitresses who take care of the essentials: get you places, make sure you don't get punched in the face, serve up food, bring you the drinks that get you drunk. Then there are the people who keep the convention humming -- the stagehands and set builders, without whom there'd be no show. They build elaborate stages so Samsung and Michael Bay can try to sell you a TV.

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Greg Carson helps build conference sets.

Richard Nieva/CNET

"It takes more than a village to make CES a success, it takes a virtual small city," says Karen Chupka, senior vice president of CES and corporate business strategy for CTA, the organization that puts on the show. "It's not just the CTA staff, it's the literally thousands of workers who contribute in some way."

But who exactly are these people? And how do they feel about the influx of nerd-ragers that blow through the city every year?

There's Bruce Chester, a 65-year-old bartender I spoke with at CES Unveiled, a media-only event held early in the week at Mandalay Bay. Tech entrepreneurs show off devices like VR shoes or smart dog collars -- it's basically a science fair for gadget geeks.

Between slinging Bacardis or Bud Lights, Chester tells me he's been tending bar for 45 years and has worked for Mandalay Bay serving drinks at corporate events for the last 16 years. He's worked every CES for the past 15 years, plus Comdex, a similar trade show in Vegas that was last held in 2003.

He says the CES crowd is generally a tame bunch. People need to stay sharp, so they don't get too drunk.

Then he has absolutely no crazy stories about CES folks, I ask?

He does. "You'll have to pay for those," he says, grinning. "Anything I would remember is not clean enough to print."

'Ask me'

Inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, a day before the conference officially opens to the public on Thursday, the building is teeming with frazzled construction workers and company reps rushing to get things primed for the big show. Ladders, tarps and cardboard boxes are everywhere. You hear the beeping of forklifts backing up. It smells faintly like paint and fumes.

One of the workers is Greg Carson. He's with Lancaster Management Services and is helping to build the booth for Belkin and Linksys. It's his fifth year building sets for CES.

As we talk, he's setting up the electrical wiring for the audio system. The crew has been working on the set for more than a week, mostly in 10 hour shifts, and now it's crunch time. He lives in Phoenix, but the company has put him up in Vegas for the job. After CES ends on Jan. 8, the crew will have to dismantle the Belkin set as well.

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Lots of Vegas locals help to build the sets and stages.

Richard Nieva/CNET

It's not all work though. "I get to gamble," he says. "Too much," he adds, laughing.

But mostly it's the locals who keep the show humming. Jake Smith, of Silver State Convention Services, is from Las Vegas. It's his first year working CES. When I meet him, he's wiping down a white shelf doing last minute prep. In between finishing up this project and tearing it down, he'll start another one at Mandalay Bay.

Outside the convention center, people are scurrying along, too. I see a woman with a matching navy-blue hat and sash that say, "Ask me." So I do. I ask Natasha Taylor, a 36-year-old CES greeter from Las Vegas, how she likes working the conference. It's her second year doing it, and she can't find much to complain about. This is just a side gig, she says. Normally, she works as a prep cook at the Excalibur hotel, cutting vegetables and getting things ready to go into ovens.

What's the craziest thing she's seen?

"The long cab lines," she says. "They're crazy."

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Natasha Taylor, a CES greeter, normally works as a prep cook at the Excalibur hotel.

Richard Nieva/CNET

She's right. They're horrific and can keep you waiting more than an hour. My cab driver on Friday was Minel West, a 39-year-old Cuban conga player. He moved to Vegas from Havana 21 years ago and will be visiting Cuba for the first time in two decades next month.

He's nervous because he hasn't seen his daughter in years, but he'll send her a cell phone. He laments the lack of technology in Cuba, and describes people going to little hubs or hotels to use the internet. He says it's frustrating that people can't just easily look up stuff online.

"And you can't watch porn," he says, laughing. "When you watch porn, you do it privately. You can't do it in front of people!"

He's got a perspective on CES I've never heard before: He thinks it's too short. The four-day show should run at least a week, because it's so good for the city. "It's not just good for the Las Vegas economy, it's good for the American economy," he says.

Like my other cab driver, West turns out to be a de facto ambassador for Vegas -- and for CES, too.

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