This month I made my first-ever visit to the world’s largest consumer-driven trade show. All you need to know about the popularity of International CES is that Las Vegas hotels, which often feature rooms for $39 a night, were getting close to $600 a night during these four days of tech geek paradise.

CES 2011 was an overwhelming mass of tech professionals, international businessmen, gadget geeks, mainstream press, bloggers and, of course, extremely attractive booth greeters. (It also happened to coincide with the Adult Film expo, which was mentioned in every third or fourth conversation here.)

The event was also an informative collision of the worlds of content and technology, a collision that will hopefully result in some real return on investment for the creators and proprietors of both.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer by Dave Malkoff via flickr

Day 1: Angry Birds, Happy Microsoft

I arrived Wednesday, which was the first day of conference sessions. Since the main show floor was still closed, I spent the afternoon attending panel discussions on the changing face of media consumption. The first discussion was entitled, “Media and Brand Ubiquity – Fashion, News, Sports, Comedy and Reality – TV, PC – The Tablet, The Smartphone – Understanding the Content and Commerce Equation.”

No joke.

Despite the convoluted name, the session was interesting. Things that became apparent:

  1. TV people will remind you over and over again that more people are watching TV than ever before. They will have statistics to back this up. They will also be scared to death of anyone watching stuff anywhere else.
  2. Advertising people will remind you over and over again that they are all about close collaboration with their clients to discover new ways of connecting with their consumers. They will have cool cases to back this up. They will also be scared to death of two guys in an apartment offering faster and more creative digital campaigns.
  3. If you are on a panel, you must mention Angry Birds.

That evening featured a keynote by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who unveiled some of the new technology Microsoft is developing. The wait to enter the hall was 45 minutes, and I only managed to grab a seat in the back row.

Being new to this event, I wasn’t expecting the Tony Robbins-esque revival atmosphere. There were gasps and applause when one of the presenters cycled through a lineup of Netflix content on an Xbox by waving his hands.

I’ll admit it. I was gasping and applauding.

I also just bought an Xbox. Mission accomplished, Steve.

LG TV Wall by jaxciz via flickr

Day 2: TV on Twitter, Stymied at Starbucks

The second day of CES featured more conference tracks on the worlds of media, marketing and technology.

I attended my first “Super Session” with executive producers of such TV shows as Dancing with the Stars, Heroes and Conan. All of them were frank about how the Internet and social media had played a huge role in the popularity of their shows and helped create “super-fans” who knew more about their programs than the producers themselves.

They also acknowledged that meeting the expectations of these super-fans was not an easy task, and if they failed, they would hear about it via the very same platforms.

I then decided to hit the show floor. It was time to see the tablets, 3D televisions, and cameras that were creating so much hype on the news and in the blogs. I was going to try out all the cool toys that make CES so special.

I lasted about twelve minutes.

A sea of humanity consumed the main central hall. It seemed that all 126,000 attendees decided to enter the show at the same time and were headed toward whatever exhibit I tried to make my way into.

As soon as I got a direct view of the latest LG 3D TV, I was shoved out of the way by a group of businessmen.

I gave up and went looking for a cup of coffee, but the line at the Starbucks in the Las Vegas Convention Center was probably 75-people long. It would stay this long for the entire show with no exceptions. Starbucks was the real winner at CES.

Toshiba Glasses-Free 3D TV by jaxciz via flickr

Day 3: No 3D Honeymoon in Vegas

Would this be the day I finally get to check out the exciting new technology at CES?

For the first 30 minutes, the show floor was miraculously open! I managed to get a look at Toshiba’s new no-glasses-needed 3D technology, which had featured a Space Mountain-esque line on Thursday.

I wanted to love it as much as I love Space Mountain. Unfortunately I didn’t, and by the time I was done, the show floor returned to its unbearable level of activity.

At least Friday afternoon featured the most interesting conference panels of CES. The sessions in the Media Money Makers track focused squarely on how to earn a buck in the current wild, wild west of content business models. The sessions were kept brief, and it also helped to have comedian Kevin Pollak on a panel, which upped the entertainment factor on a discussion of Hollywood entrepreneurship.

I returned to the show floor thinking I might catch a break with the crowds. I thought wrong. Maybe I would have better luck at the craps table. Wrong again.

Motorola Xoom by brandon shigeta via flickr

Day 4: Football and iPadding

Sweet relief. I was able to spend most of Saturday wandering the endless halls of CES. I got to watch dozens of 3D TVs. 3D isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but one had to be impressed by the gorgeous pictures on units from Samsung and LG. I also got to check out cool tablets such as the Motorola Xoom, the Blackberry Playbook, and the Samsung Galaxy series. The Xoom yields nothing to Apple in the design category and its multiple best-in-show awards prove that.

While tablets were definitely a big hit at this year’s show, things that hold your tablet might have been an even bigger hit. I made my way down endless corridors of accessory providers, who make everything from covers to bags to stands to covers that worked as both a bag and a stand.

The sparser crowds not only allowed me to hear former NFL lineman Lomas Brown do a Q&A at the Sennheiser electronics booth, but they also allowed me to evaluate the padding under the carpet in each of the booths.

Being a former booth worker myself, I know how important padding is to those who are forced to be on their feet all day answering the same questions over and over again. Kudos to Microsoft, Samsung, and not surprisingly 3M for their foot-friendly booths. Research in Motion should invest a little bit more.

I absorbed as much as I could and got in my car for the drive home (after stopping briefly in the Hilton Sportsbook to make what would be very dumb bets on NFL playoff games – I blame Lomas Brown).

Yes, CES was exhausting. I don’t know that it’s possible for one person to fully digest even half the show due to its size, scope and the massive crowds.

I do know that for all the buzz around tablets and televisions, there is plenty of money to be made in cases, covers and, most importantly, coffee.

Starbucks queue by brandon shigeta via flickr