I’ve spent more time than I care to mention over the last several years wondering aloud about the value of in-person trade shows. There’s something seemingly antiquated in the idea of jamming a bunch of people in a room, walking from booth to booth. Sure, they’ve fulfilled an important need in the past, but aren’t they just a relic in this hyperconnected world?
I’ve always assumed that if trade shows were to go extinct, it would be a gradual process — a slow fade into cultural irrelevance, like bookstores and record stores (both things I miss dearly). Technology has, for many intents and purposes, dramatically reduced their relative value to our society.
While it’s undoubtedly true that Spotify and the Kindle Store are lacking in much of the appeal and all of the charm of their real-world counterparts, we’re happy to sacrifice all that and more at the alter of convenience.
A rampaging pandemic has effectively given us a year without in-person trade shows. That means, among other things, we’ve had a much more immediate control variable in this question about trade shows. Last year’s CES managed to get in just under the wire. The next major consumer electronics show — Mobile World Congress — was eventually canceled after much hand-wringing.
The CTA (the governing body behind CES) appeared to have been planning a scaled-back in-person version of the show this year, following a similar move by the team behind the Berlin-based IFA over the summer. By July, however, it was clear that such a plan was untenable. To put it bluntly, the United States didn’t have its shit together when it comes to keeping this virus in check (I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we just hit 400,000 deaths on the day I’m writing this).
CES 2021 was far from the first tech show to go all virtual over this past year. The size and scope of the event, on the other hand, are relatively unique here. Per the CTA, the 2020 show drew north of 170,000 attendees. The majority of the tech events I’ve attended virtually in the past year have been put on by a single company. CES is obviously a different beast entirely.
The CTA’s (nee CEA) role in the industry certainly afforded it a fair bit of goodwill up front. The show, after all, dates back to the late-60s. It has ebbed and flowed over the years (taking hits from external forces like the 2008 financial crisis), but it has remained a constant. Those of us who’ve been doing this for a while tend to face the show with equal parts anticipation and dread. But the companies always come out.
Per the CTA’s numbers, nearly 2,000 companies launched products at the 2021 event. The figure pales in comparison to the 4,419 companies exhibiting last year, but that’s to be expected. In addition to the uncertain nature of the event, it’s been a remarkably crappy year for plenty of companies. I certainly had my questions and doubts going in — chief among them was the value of an event like this for a startup? Without an in-person element, wasn’t this just yet another chance to get lost in the noise?
I heard similar feedback from startups on the side, though ultimately nearly 700 chose to exhibit at the show. I know because I ended up going through all of them for the purposes of our coverage. It brought back a kind of visceral memory of the year I challenged myself to walk every square inch of the show, and ended up being challenging for entirely different reasons.
Ultimately, this was the element I missed the most. For me, CES’s biggest appeal has been the element of discovery. Eureka Park, the jam-packed startup portion of the show at the Sands Expo, is easily the best part. The vast majority of exhibitors are not for us, but I still get a charge stumbling on something new and innovative I’ve not seen before. The blogger instinct that lives dormant inside kicks in and I can’t wait to get back in front of my laptop to tell the world.
There was no Eureka Park this year — not even a virtual version. There’s just no good way to approximate a show floor online — at least none that I’m aware of. A couple of existing contacts offered to send me stuff in the mail to look out. Sensel, for instance, has a new version of its trackpad (which it announced today will be integrated into Lenovo’s latest ThinkPad). But for obvious reasons, it’s just not possible to get all 700 startups to send review units to my one-bedroom in Queens.
More than anything, the virtual event highlighted the technology limitations of an event at this scale. Press conferences are simple enough (though I found frustration in the various different platforms the CTA employed). More often than not, these felt like lengthy commercials for the exhibiting company. The in-person versions are, as well, of course, but we tend to be blinded by the spectacle. For my own purposes, there just wasn’t a lot that that couldn’t have been accomplished more efficiently with a press release.
The nature of news releases was far more nebulous this year. More companies seemingly took liberties by dumping their news well ahead of the show. Other companies offered their own sort of counter programming. One of the biggest advantages to these events when it comes to my own peace of mind is how they regulate the news flow. I know going into the year that there’s going to be one hair-pullingly difficult week at the beginning of the year where a ton of news is announced.
With CES less of a center of gravity this year, I anticipated seeing a less segmented news flow. I’ve commented to colleagues over the last couple of years that there’s “no more slow season” when it comes to hardware news, and this will likely only increase that sentiment. Obviously there’s upside in having things more evenly spread out, but I’ve got the feeling we’re moving toward something more akin to a series of small CES-like events throughout the year, and the thought makes my blood turn cold.
It’s been clear in recent years that companies would rather break out from the noise of CES in favor of their own events, following in Apple’s footsteps. Virtual events are a perfect opportunity to adopt that approach. Apple, meanwhile, moved from one event to a series of one smaller event every month toward the end of the year. When you’re not asking people to fly across the country or world to attend an event, the bar for what qualifies as news lowers considerably. Perhaps instead of having thousands of companies vying for our attention at one event, we’re moving toward a model in which there are instead thousands of events. The mind boggles.
I have some hyper-specific grievances about the CTA’s format, but I’ll save them for the post-event survey that I may or may not get around to filling out. I still found value in the virtual event. It was an excuse to talk to a bunch of startups I wasn’t familiar with. Ultimately, however, I think the event served as a testament to the fact that as much as we bemoan all of the headaches and head colds that come with an event like CES, there’s still a lot of value to be had in the in-person event.
There’s little doubt that the CTA and the rest of these sorts of organizations are champing at the bit to return to in-person events, even as a bumpy vaccine rollout leaves a big question mark around the expected timeline. There’s a very good chance that we’ll view 2020/2021 as the beginning of the end for the in-person trade show. But given the sorts of limitations we’ve seen in the past year, I’m not ready to declare them fully dead any time soon.