How CES plans to recreate Las Vegas deal-making with its online event
CES organizers say they explored scores of virtual conference technologies to try to recreate the electronics show that traditionally resides in Las Vegas every January, but won’t be held in person in 2021, for obvious reasons. One concept they considered, but dismissed, was virtual reality, where attendees could visit a digital convention center through avatars.
The CES team took a simpler approach with an online conference powered by Microsoft technology that will make it easier to call up conference sessions and keynotes, and schedule meetings. On Tuesday, executives from the Consumer Technology Association showed off the basic concept for how they plan to pull off CES without Las Vegas, and they justified the prices they set for attendees ($149) and exhibitors (starting at about $1,200) based on the 100-plus hours of programming.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA, told media at a virtual press event that the nonprofit group invested “in the seven figures” to build the online conference. This is the first time in the event’s 54-year history that it won’t be in Las Vegas, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shapiro talked up the benefits of the online affair, while acknowledging it won’t have the same pizzazz as Vegas. “They didn’t want avatars going around exhibits,” Shapiro said, referring to the feedback the CTA received from customers while planning CES 2021. “We were able to re-imagine a show, get away from this concept going physically from exhibit to exhibit, and allow the advantages of digital to be there, where you could go in a more logical way, without tired feet.”
CTA and partners are hoping to still attract at least 150,000 people to the online show, which is the usual attendance in Las Vegas. The online experiment will help the organizers in the coming years when they plan “hybrid” CES events with the digital components and a Las Vegas convention.
CES is one of the most high-profile industry events of the year, attracting leaders from technology, media, advertising and other industries. For the ad world, the Las Vegas confab is a chance to meet with major digital and internet companies on the sidelines of the convention center, in hotel rooms and at parties. CES is often compared to Cannes International Festival of Creativity as one of the tentpole events of the year to plan marketing partnerships and cut deals. The entire events industry has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating uncertainty for festivals like SXSW in Austin and the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Digital Content NewFronts in New York City.
“It is costly for us, there’s no secret about that,” Shapiro said on Tuesday. “We’re feeling the effects of the pandemic like others, and we’ve had to cut back on things, but one thing we invested in was this venue, this platform that allowed exhibitors, customers, attendees, business people, startups, retailers, the investment community, and of course media, to connect.”
Karen Chupka, CTA’s executive VP, addressed how they decided on Microsoft Team’s online technology, and demonstrated how the conference will work. Exhibitors will be listed online, and attendees can choose the companies and panels they want to view. There will be ways for attendees to message each other and set up meetings. There will be more than 100 hours of programming, and all the content and communication functionality will be open for 30 days after the event that runs from Jan. 11 to 14.
The CTA received questions about why it didn’t try a fully virtual conference, with VR avatars taking the place of live people. It was an interesting concept but not one that’s quite ready for primetime.
“We really wanted to make sure that we were investing in the value of connections,” Chupka said. “And so there will be exhibitors demonstrating those technologies, but they’re not necessarily part of the technologies we’re using as a platform.”
CES organizers also announced new speakers in the lineup, which is still being formed. Today, they revealed that Best Buy CEO Corie Barry would participate. CES also has Verizon, Samsung, Sony, Microsoft and other big-name electronics makers on board.
CES organizers told Ad Age last week that they had already booked 1,000 exhibitors. The event typically attracts about 4,500 exhibitors when it’s held in Las Vegas.
Some industry observers say it will be hard for CES to recreate Las Vegas online, but that there is still value for attendees.
“The upside is that, no longer constrained to just Las Vegas and with a global audience, the show will be accessible to many more people around the world,” says Ana Milicevic, co-founder of Sparrow Advisers. “However, satisfying the needs of sponsors and marquee participants will be a tall order.”