Inside CES' pitch for its virtual show: What $25,000 gets you ... minus Las Vegas
Las Vegas in January is a media and advertising tradition; slots and robots, for the technophiles gathered at the Consumer Electronics Show. But this year, the pandemic has moved the annual show to a virtual setting for the first time, and there are signs that some of the most prominent companies in tech and advertising won’t be as active for this scaled-down digital conference.
However, show organizers are still trying to mimic the spirit of the conference online, without Las Vegas.
CES organizers have plenty planned and hope to attract at least 150,000 people to attend online panels and sessions, just like 150,000 people typically visit the Las Vegas and its Convention Center in real life. There also are big-name sponsors from the electronics world, including Samsung, Verizon and Microsoft.
“We’re not going to pretend that we can recreate the magic that happens in Las Vegas, nobody can,” says Jean Foster, senior VP of marketing and communications at the Consumer Technology Association, which is the trade body that organizes CES. “But what we wanted to do was create a really unique event that really is kind of re-imagining what a digital event can be.”
Ad Age obtained a copy of a pitch deck produced by CTA. Titled “CES Digital Activation Prospectus,” it asks for up to $25,000 to participate in the “reimagined,” “reinvented” and “redefined” program. The pitch deck shows that CES is offering a multimedia experience, with keynote speakers, virtual showrooms and online events. Instead of booths on the convention center floor, there will be a “digital venue” and “exhibitor showcase.”
The cost is similar to past years, when the event was held in person, but the exhibitors save on the significant costs of travel, live installations, and the Las Vegas lifestyle. The typical CES exhibitor includes startups, independent gadget makers, accessory brands, major electronics, and internet giants, and this year at least 1,000 such exhibitors are expected, Foster says.
However, the price has been a deterrent for some of the companies that usually erect large presences in Las Vegas in the convention showroom and in the swanky hotels surrounding the event.
Two companies that are typically active in Las Vegas, Facebook and Twitter, are planning small footprints at the virtual CES, if any, according to people familiar with those companies’ plans. While CTA is an important partner for Facebook and Twitter, they’re just not investing the same time and energy as they typically would for the in-person event, those people told Ad Age.
And they’re not alone. Ad agencies and media holding companies, which always flood Las Vegas in January, are debating how much they want to devote to this year’s event, and they see the price tag as a barrier, according to a number of ad agency executives.
Agencies are highly active participants in normal years, because they are the ones going to meetings with all the internet companies, checking out the technological innovation, and researching the digital services coming in the year ahead. They often host exclusive dinners and parties, turning Las Vegas into a playground for the ad world.
Two ad agency execs said that sponsorship packages, depending on the level of involvement, can cost up to $80,000, and that the price seemed steep. “The CTA is offering sponsorship opportunities with varying costs,” said one of the executives, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This includes logo placement on the site all the way through to sessions on the ‘main stage.’ The highest level package they offered is quite pricey, coming in at around $80,000.”
When asked about the pricing, another agency executive, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Oh yeah, and they were like, ‘Guys, we’re all trying to make this work, and we’re going to make it the best event it’s ever been. In fact, we’re going to have a better opportunity to have captive audiences.’ Which I would agree, if you’re going to do it online you tend to have more people’s attention. However, if you do it online, the people who log in are not the people that you’re looking for.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on the events industry, shutting down SXSW just before it opened in March. Cannes and the NewFronts both went virtual this year. The pandemic has forced companies to rethink their priorities and whether these industry confabs are still worth the price of admission when it’s only an online affair. There has been real harm to the cities that thrive through their annual gatherings, like Austin with SXSW and Las Vegas with CES.
CES just barely escaped the coronavirus shutdown with its show this year, getting its event in three months before lockdowns hit. In April, the CTA started to plan for 2021, and had hoped it could offer a hybrid event, partly online and partly in-person. But given the ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19, that has not been not possible, and many of the companies that are typically involved are still stuck with remote workplaces.
Foster says that CES is offering reasonable price points for companies like tech startups that want a spot in the digital lineup, starting as low as $1,200, which, without the added costs of travel, winds up saving money. With 1,000 exhibitors, CES would be scaled back from the typical year, when about 4,500 companies populate the convention center booths, according to Foster.
CES also continues to work closely with MediaLink, which is owned by Ascential and run by Michael Kassan, who also helps organize the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Kassan is somewhat of an ambassador for CES every year.
Kassan thinks that the event will still be as relevant as ever. Instead of tours on the showroom floor, the tours will be held virtually, a place for major brands to reveal new electronics and innovations. “Microsoft Teams is the technology partner for CES officially,” Kassan says during a recent phone interview. “So we’re using the Teams platform, and they’ll be coordinating with LG and Samsung and you name it, and those tours will be conducted in a live way.”
The MediaLink party that kicks off CES every year is one of the hottest tickets in town. But this year, out of necessity, there obviously won’t be any of that same in-person energy. But Kassan promises programming surprises that could match the quality of the usual CES concert, which in the past has included names like Gwen Stefani.
“It would be totally naïve to think that the same quality of networking and business development and activation are going to exist at CES,” says Alexis Boerger, founder of Orion Consultants and a longtime CES attendee, who works with media and tech companies to plan their events.
The FOMO—fear of missing out—is still there, says Boerger, which makes CES still a desirable stop, if only digitally. “Even though a lot of people are balking at some of the price tags, nobody wants that sense of FOMO,” she says. “So I think to some extent people are still engaging.”
Boerger says that with that FOMO and other virtual bells-and-whistles, she is an "optimist" about this year's event: "The thing that I'm most excited for personally, free from the schedule chock full of back-to-back-to-back meetings, and the overabundance of programming, and the dinners and the parties, even though they're sexy and glamorous," Boerger says. "This year refreshingly CES is forced to focus back on the technology."