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What Will A Virtual CES Look Like?

Can all-digital versions of tech shows such as CES, CEDIA, NAB and Toy Fair be as economically viable and satisfying as a live version for exhibitors and attendees?

That collective sigh of relief expelled by prospective attendees in the wake of CTA’s decision to hold CES virtually was accompanied by an exasperated “What do we do now?” response by exhibitors.

“They’re disappointed, you know. This is their opportunity to get into the market after a year of not being able to get in front of their customers live,” says Jean Foster, CTA senior vice president of marketing and communications. “We’re sad, but we understand. And now we can focus on how we engage the audiences digitally.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, CES is not the only CTA event that has gone all-digital, and not the only tech show faced with replacing a live event with a virtual one. While the ESA simply canceled June’s E3, Toy Fair, NAB, CEDIA and IFA are just a few industry shows that have or are about to hold all-digital events, and both Apple and Microsoft have held digital developers conferences. All of these virtual predecessors provide guidance as CTA plans an all-digital CES.

For instance, even though the in-person Toy Fair was held as usual at New York’s Javits Center this past February, the Toy Association is holding a series of virtual Toy Fair Everywhere events throughout the summer. The first Toy Fair Everywhere took place last month, with upcoming versions scheduled for August 17–23 and September 14–20.

“Toy Fair Everywhere was never meant to replace our in-person industry events, but to quickly supplement them in response to the buying and selling needs of the industry during the pandemic,” explains Kimberly Carcone, Toy Association VP of meetings and events. “With in-person meeting and events limited for many, the Toy Fair Everywhere platform was a way for us to connect the buying and toy communities.”

Forced to cancel its usual early spring show, NAB held an all-digital NAB Show Express from March 11 to May 13 with 1,479 virtually exhibiting companies attracting 40,000 online participants. “Going forward, we will take this digital experience to the next level,” predicts Ann Marie Cumming, senior VP of Communications for NAB, which also has transformed its upcoming fall New York event from physical to virtual. “We have gathered feedback from our community on what worked, what they’d like to see more of, and any pain points we need to resolve. With more time to prepare, we are developing a robust platform for exhibitors to share product information, demonstrations and to interact with customers.”

Virtual Show Pro and Cons

Obviously, all-digital shows cannot come close to replicating the real thing, and they’re not necessarily intended to. “Logistically, this is a vastly different approach to trade show planning,” admits Cumming, “but it’s a direction the industry has been moving, more as a supplement to live shows than a replacement for them.”

Virtual shows offer both advantages and disadvantages. For exhibitors, “space” suddenly becomes an abstract concept rather than a physical square foot cost concern. “The beauty of Toy Fair Everywhere ‘exhibit space’ is that it is unlimited and one flat rate for either all three market weeks or just August and September,” notes Toy Fair’s Carcone. “What this does, we believe, is help level the playing field as well for all companies, whether large or small.”

See also: CES Is Going All Digital, But What Can We Expect From Tech In H2 2020 & Beyond?

With no costs for physical space, travel or accommodations, shows can be elongated, or even be repeated every few months. “With three market weeks instead of one, exhibitors have the opportunity to feature different products and/or refresh their showrooms to showcase different brands based on the selling seasons and their objectives,” Carcone adds.

A virtual show also becomes more accessible to attendees. “Although there is no substitute for in-person trade shows, digital events offer greater flexibility in producing and accessing premium educational content – content that has value and a shelf life beyond the event itself,” Cumming continues. “In addition to our regular attendees, the online event was able to reach those looking to get a taste of what NAB Show has to offer, and those who’ve been unable to attend past shows for various reasons.”

CTA State of the Industry 2020
CTA’s Gary Shapiro during the CTA State of the Industry Address at CES 2020.

Virtual CES Roadmap

CES already includes digital aspects, and more were already on the drawing board. Keynotes, conference sessions and press conferences have live-streamed from CES for years, for instance, and CTA has been pondering the possibility of a virtual version for months. “Whatever happened, there was always the intention that we would have to have a digital event as well,” Foster offers.

CTA also is mulling an elongated virtual CES, either with additional days or possibly longer hours. “But obviously, the core event will still be that week that we were planning,” Foster insists.

But a virtual CES, like all tech shows, faces two major hurdles: “How do our exhibitors demonstrate their products,” Foster rhetorically asks, “and how do we help people network?”

Next month, September 15-17, virtual CEDIA attendees will be the first to see how – or if – A/V gear can be digitally auditioned. CTA will face a similar demo/audition issue for CES, as well as how to replicate the massive press conferences held in the days prior to the show opening. Foster says CTA already had reached out to exhibitors, who “had to start thinking about what that would mean for them and how they would demonstrate their solutions.”

Replicating the networking aspect of CES is equally problematic. Considering the plethora of video chatting solutions, creating virtual face-to-face meetings would seem to be easier than replicating demos. But, “there’s just nothing on the scale that we need,” Foster says. “We’re assessing platforms at the moment. We’re not just having one off-the-shelf. We’re going to be working on how to pull together a complete solution.”

CTA will continue working on virtual CES through the rest of the year. Foster promises an update in the fall, and “we can start maybe even teasing some content in December.” CTA also has postponed its annual CES Unveiled and CTA Hall of Fame events from mid-November to sometime in 2021.

After all, if CTA can’t assemble the technologies necessary to pull off a successful virtual event…

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