by Steve Hoffenberg | 01/14/2021
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide in early 2020, nearly all trade shows and conferences have been cancelled, postponed, or converted to virtual events. CES 2021 is the largest event thus far to go virtual, and it largely went was well as could be expected under the circumstances, with numerous keynotes, presentations, and vendor exhibitions. I’ve attended CES, if I’ve counted correctly, 18 times, primarily as an industry analyst but also a couple of years as an exhibitor. Here are a few of my thoughts on the ups and downs of the virtual CES:
• As an industry analyst, most of my time at an in-person CES would be devoted to pre-arranged meetings or briefings with vendors, packed into a full schedule that sometimes would have me elbowing slow pokes aside in the aisles as I dashed from booth to booth or rushed to get to a different venue. Ironically, for the virtual CES, I actually had fewer pre-scheduled meetings. Maybe the vendors were just less aggressive in their outreach this year, or maybe I was less aggressive in my outreach, or maybe everyone was just waiting to see how the show would go.
• Virtual attendees can’t or won’t spend as many hours in front of a screen as they would attending in-person, whether due to distractions while working from home, other work obligations that would have been pushed aside if they had traveled to a “real” trade show, or simple virtual event fatigue.
• At a virtual event, attendees basically see what they set out to see. Serendipitous encounters with previously unfamiliar exhibitors or industry colleagues are unlikely. Many years ago when I was an exhibitor at a different trade show, one of the largest sales in the history of my then employer was the eventual result of a casual conversation that our business development manager struck up with an attendee in the restroom.
• Some vendors not part of CES emailed press releases during the show, which due to their timing could be easily mistaken as CES-related. To some extent, that happens every year, but when I’m at CES in person, I pay much more attention to what is at the event and less attention to random press releases received via email.
• I suspect that most CES exhibitors had far fewer interactions with attendees than they would have had at their physical booths during an in-person CES, despite the fact that virtualizing the show made it easier for attendees to get around, particularly when the physical show is spread across multiple venues miles apart in Las Vegas. However, the keynotes and some of the other featured sessions may have drawn more attendees than they would have in a conference room or auditorium. At a virtual event, it pays to be a headliner.
• Virtualizing the show meant much lower expenses for most exhibitors. One medium-sized company told me that they saved approximately $200,000 that normally would have been spent at CES on booth space and travel expenses, not to mention the value of staff time.
CES is the largest annual trade show in Las Vegas in terms of square footage and number of exhibitors. (The Specialty Equipment Market Association show for the automotive industry draws the most attendees. That event, which normally runs in November, was cancelled in 2020.) The loss of collective CES-related revenue in the city of Las Vegas will be further devastating for a local economy that was already one of the hardest hit by the loss of leisure and business travel due to COVID-19. The pandemic will likely kill off some smaller conferences and trade shows that are no longer financially viable, but I don’t expect that to be the case for CES. It’s too big and too important for too many industries. It’s the last giant tech event standing in the US after the demise of COMDEX post-2003.
However, given some of the financial advantages of attending a virtual event, going forward many trade shows—including CES—are likely to adopt a hybrid model, combining in-person and virtual activities. After the current pandemic has ended, it will be interesting to see how many attendees choose to attend CES virtually rather than in person, and how many exhibitors downsize their booths. For an industry analyst such as myself, face-to-face interactions are a major draw for any industry event. Zoom meetings and phone calls are weak substitutes, albeit better than none at all.
As much as attending CES has many challenges, it has always been worth going. Having been to Las Vegas more than 50(!) times for various trade shows and conferences over the course of my career, I never thought I’d say this, but I missed not being there in Vegas for CES this time around. Get me the COVID vaccine, and I’ll be there in January 2022.
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