CES 2021 – The Way Forward for Tech Conferences and Trade Shows

By Charles King, Pund-IT®

Like most tech industry analysts, I’ve spent quite a bit of time attending conferences designed to provide customers and partners the latest news on the sponsoring vendor’s strategies, solutions, services and business plans. Trade shows, like last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2021) are considerably different creatures.

Yes, numerous analysts and reporters travel to CES (over 6,500 of last year’s 171k+ attendees were members of the media) but the primary purpose of CES and similar events is to physically connect Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) member vendors/manufacturers who exhibit at the show (4,400+ in 2020) with wholesalers and retailers, and encourage commercial deals. So how well can a “virtual” event like CES 2021 support what has traditionally relied on face-to-face engagements? Looking ahead, what does this potentially mean for the CE industries and markets? Let’s consider these issues.

Challenges: Making the personal “virtual”

Getting out the word about what vendors hope and pray will be successful offerings is still important but allowing commercial customers to see, test and ask questions about new products is even more vital at trade shows. Though the CES website team did a good job of presenting main tent keynotes, canned interviews with senior executives, press releases and featured videos/articles, there were more than a few hiccups along the way.

As my friend and colleague Daniel Rasmus noted in his CES 2021 commentary, the CES site search function was less than optimal, in part because the search engine failed to recognize strings of words/terms. As an example, searching for “personal computers” in the Exhibitors Directory turned up 132 companies while a search for “personal computer” delivered 211. However, neither Lenovo nor HP, both leading vendors in that space, were included in the results. Searching for “PCs” resulted in 17 companies, again missing Lenovo and HP. Entering “PC” delivered 102 results, including Lenovo and HP but the “relevance” ranking seemed flawed since HP was listed on page 2 and Lenovo on page 7.

There were other shortcomings, including the Directory only identifying companies by their names and logos—reaching a blurb or thumbnail description required clicking through individual links. That’s less than optimal when you’re combing through 1,959 often unfamiliar exhibitors. Finally, one of the best aspects of CES to my mind is the ability of diverse smaller companies, startups, university programs and national trade associations to gain visibility in venues, like Eureka Park and on the main show floors. Those companies and organizations seemed lost in the shuffle on the CES website or simply decided not to participate in the virtual event.

Benefits: Easy access, replays and avoiding the madness of crowds

With those annoyances out of the way, is there anything good to say about CES 2021? Absolutely. For one thing, physically attending CES has become increasingly difficult and expensive over the past half decade. Gridlock is common on the streets around the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), as well as on the show floor. Public transit options, like the Las Vegas Monorail are overwhelmed. Hotels on and off The Strip significantly bump their rates during the show and eating at popular restaurants is difficult to impossible. Though I miss seeing new and upcoming products and talking directly with their developers and makers, avoiding the cost, time requirements and other hassles was, frankly, a relief.

Despite the technical shortcomings noted above, my experience watching keynotes and other presentations on the CES 2021 website was generally pleasant. The decision to utilize Microsoft Teams to support those events was a sensible choice—video and sound quality were good and subtitles were available in 17 languages. Plus, the CEA is offering replays to registered attendees until February 15th. That’s a boon for reporters and analysts who in past years had to pick/choose between countless, often conflicting events. Overall, the CES website designers and developers deserve kudos for mostly succeeding at tackling a massive online project.

In addition, some other organizations did an excellent job of supporting CES exhibitors online. Showstoppers and Pepcom have long managed offsite media showcases that enable 60-80 participating vendors to interact with reporters and analysts. They’re not representative of the entirety of CES but these venues are far less crowded and noisy than the LVCC and there’s more time to discuss and test new products. The virtual showcases Showstoppers and Pepcom provided this year did an excellent job of highlighting and providing access to their client vendors’ products and background materials.

Where does CES go from here?

So, what does this portend for CES, as well as CEA member exhibitors and their customers? On the upside, despite some slips and glitches the virtual CES experience was generally good. Technical issues, like the search engine glitches I described can be addressed and improved. Careful consideration of site design should make it easier in the future to find necessary information and ensure that smaller companies don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Just as importantly, as time goes on, companies should become more adept with using virtual conference platforms and tools to perform and support promotional and sales processes. Those are vital points because a quick containment of Covid-19 and swift return to pre-pandemic “normal” appear are highly unlikely in 2021.

Even with effective planning and efficient execution—which both seem likely under the guidance of President Joe Biden and his administration—immunizing the 70%+ of U.S. citizens required to develop herd immunity is daunting. Plus, given the huge impact of Covid-19 worldwide, disruptions of globally focused events, like CES are likely to continue beyond this year.

As we saw countless times sin 2020, adaptivity is a core characteristic for survival. Businesses both inside and outside the tech industry are helping their clients and partners adapt to the massive shifts triggered by the pandemic. If CES is to stay relevant and survive, the Consumer Electronics Association needs to provide similar assistance and guidance to its members. The same applies to other trade shows and industry organizations.

Final note: Unexpected arrivals and departures

CES is generally highly scripted and predictable but this year’s conference served as the backdrop for a pair of notable unexpected events. First, Intel announced that VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger will become its new CEO on February 15th replacing current CEO Bob Swan. The deal was somewhat surprising since Gelsinger has reportedly refused previous offers of CEO positions and seemed satisfied with leading VMware. But having spent the first 30 years of his career at Intel, eventually rising to become the company’s first CTO, he may feel the need to complete some unfinished business there. In any case, it is difficult to think of a better executive to restore Intel’s luster. Bob Swan has done a solid job of stabilizing the company after the departure of previous CEO Brian Krzanich in 2018. However, Intel’s next act requires the guidance of a deeply knowledgeable technologist and inspirational leader like Pat Gelsinger.

In addition, the first day of CES 2021, January 11th, marked the death of multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson, CEO and Chairman of the Sands Corporation which owns the Venetian/Palazzo complex where numerous CES meetings and events are hosted. In 1979, Adelson co-founded COMDEX, the massive tech industry tradeshow that flourished in Las Vegas until 2004 when it was shuttered and effectively replaced by CES. A man of strong opinions, Adelson made controversial moves when they suited his interests. Those included buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper then hiring editors and managers who reportedly quashed the paper’s investigations of Adelson’s business dealings. A staunch advocate for conservative causes, Sheldon Adelson died less than a year after Covid-19 fundamentally altered the trajectory of his industry and community, as well as the fortunes of many of the politicians he supported. R.I.P.

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