It’s not certain and a lot can happen between now and early 2021, but my bet is that the annual Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”) will be cancelled or severely curtailed.
The show is still on, according to its organizers (the Consumer Technology Association, or “CTA”), and it promises to “highlight technologies that help provide solutions for some of the day-to-day challenges created by the pandemic.”
But the numbers just don’t look good. Over 175,000 people attended last year’s event, and anybody who has gone to a CES knows that the crush of crowds is the rule, not the exception. If you’re not stuck in a gaggle of people on the show floor or at a bar, you’re likely standing in a line to get from one to the other.
In fact, interacting with people is pretty much the only reason why CES still exists.
Brands have been pulling back from trade shows for decades, choosing instead to host their own events (made possible by technologies that connect them directly with their customers and other stakeholders). Also, definitions have blurred, so many of the sellers and buyers of once distinct technology products are now the same department or person.
After the COMDEX shows folded in 2003, CES made itself an annual gig and became the only place everyone could reasonably expect to run into everyone else.
So, when the CTA promises to “sanitize spaces across show venues,” it’s referencing about 3 million square feet of various surfaces (i.e. good luck with that). “Widening aisles” will just let more people crowd into them, much like extra highway lanes do nothing to relieve congestion, and “cashless systems for purchases” will still require buyers to touch whatever it is they buy (or eat).
When you add the political insanity of some Americans refusing to wear masks (despite CES’s “best practice” suggestion otherwise), and the likelihood that the coronavirus will be raging without a vaccine and, well, there’s just as likely a chance that the CTA won’t cancel or cut back on the event…but that people just won’t come, especially from countries around the world that have better managed their outbreaks.
Exhibiting at CES can be a significant expense for brands, so it makes sense to plan for some sort of disruption of next year’s event. Here are three things to consider:
First, don’t try to replicate your exhibit virtually. Remember, nobody attending CES was looking for your display, they were curious about what your business was doing and who was doing it. “The event” was an artificial trigger to give them that visibility; without it, you need to innovate an alternative interaction that delivers on that substance and doesn’t rely on the window-dressing of a faux physical visit.
The good news is that this fact can save you lots of money trying to create complicated virtual versions of your booth. The bad news is that you have to come to terms with what you are (and always were) trying to accomplish.
Second, the message is the message. Robbed of the theatrics of an exhibit — dramatic displays, crowds of curious onlookers, private meals and drinks for some and trinkets for all — what you want to share becomes far more important. If all you have is a product offering update, or have saved up announcements of nuanced, incremental improvements, you’re quickly going to realize that nobody ever really cared about that crap. Nobody is going to make the time to review your product catalog.
Instead, challenge yourself to discover why your brand, or some key product or technology, is uniquely relevant to your audience, and why they need to know about it in early January versus, say, any other time of the year. Without CES, you’re going to need to come up with a compelling reason why virtual visitors will make time for you or, put another way, you’ll be competing not just with other exhibitors’ pitches but any other activity available to your targets (getting work done, walking the dog, whatever).
You’ll quickly learn that this work is infinitely harder than coming up with some snazzy, dense messaging matrix that’ll dictate how you can fill up your physical space.
Third, you should rethink your success metrics. In the old days, trade shows were where suppliers wrote buyer orders, and CES even lived up to this outcome until somewhat recently. But now it’s really one huge display, at least mostly, and any measure that counts visits or meetings is probably measuring nothing (or a vague corollary to engagement); worse, many of those meetings are with known characters, like existing procurement staff, which otherwise happen virtually for the rest of the year. So how do those metrics play out if CES is just another glorified webinar?
I think the answer is to be found somewhere in the idea of establishing or strengthening communities, and that would mean giving people things of real worth in exchange for their time. A glimpse of what they could already see on your website, or get regularly hammered with by your sales staff, doesn’t even come close.
Ultimately, planning what you’d do without CES is probably a healthy exercise that could inform why you do CES anyway. Strip away the event and you’re left with really intriguing questions of what you’re sharing, why, and how you measure its value.
And, like I said, standing in that mess of people, however constrained by numbers or rules, is not sounding too attractive right now. I’m sitting on a reservation to fly to Vegas in early January, but I’m asking myself those same questions from an attendee’s perspective.
In fact, I’m already planning alternatives.