CES 2021 cancels in-person show, moves event online

CES, the largest trade show in North America is the latest victim of COVID-19.

The Consumer Technology Association says it is moving much of CES online, and vows to return to the Las Vegas Convention Center for a physical show in January, 2022.

“We’ve been optimistic, but realistic,” says Gary Shapiro, CEO of the CTA. “We had no choice but to re-imagine CES.”

Shapiro isn’t alone. Most large-scale trade shows have been canceled this year, starting with the Mobile World Congress in February, and extending to Apple, Facebook and Google developer sessions.

Apple successfully moved its Worldwide Developers Conference online.

The Black Hat USA security conference, which provides security consulting, training, and briefings to hackers, corporations and government agencies has moved online and set for early August. Dreamforce, the meeting put on by Salesforce that has previously taken over San Francisco, is set for November. And so has the bulk of the Republican and Democratic political conventions.

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“Any show planned for 2020 has been canceled,” says president of Creative Strategies Tim Bajarin, who has attended 46 CES shows over the years. “I don’t think we’ll see live shows coming back until mid-2021 at the earliest.”

Virtual shows, however, haven’t found their usual assortment of buzz and media coverage online. The recent Comic-Con convention, a huge draw for fans of sci-fi and geek culture, was a “bust” according to Variety. “if Comic-Con@Home achieved anything, it was revealing the abiding truth that there is no substitute for the live experience,” said the Hollywood trade publication

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A 53-year-old show transitions online

This will mark the first time no physical CES show will be staged since its launch in 1967. In the past few months, CES had vowed to go on with the show, until the resurgence of the coronavirus caused a major rethink.

CES, where thousands of new products are introduced, companies like LG, Samsung and Sony exhibit alongside small startups. It’s a place where executives give keynote presentations on the future of technology, while others engage in panel discussions. The show attracts upwards of 175,000 people yearly who descend upon Las Vegas.

Beyond the day activities, there are dinners, parties, networking meetings and the like that CES won’t be able to replicate online.

What it can do is put the keynotes and panel chats online, and come up with a way to present new products to what Shapiro predicts is an even bigger audience.

Because people won’t have to travel to Las Vegas, and much of the show will be available for free online viewing, Shapiro says he’ll have a much bigger audience for CES online than the yearly 175,000 figure.

Asked to assess the financial hit from not being able to collect booth rentals and sponsorship fees, Shapiro demurred, but admitted it was “millions and millions” of dollars.

The impact in Las Vegas could be even bigger, with the loss of rooms, dining, transportation and other costs associated with the high intensity event. In January, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said CES would contribute over $283 million to the Las Vegas economy.

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Shapiro says CES is investing heavily in moving the show online, and is planning to spend the next five months figuring out innovative ways to stage the show and keep it interesting.

“Do I think people will spend 40 hours in front of computers, watching it?” he says. “Of course not. But there’s a lot we can do.”

A virtual CES “won’t be as successful,” says Bajarin, “but if they’re creative enough, they can pull off an effective CES show to meet the needs of their own members.”

The CES will be available for viewing online, January 6-9.

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter



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