CES 2021 is going to be a very different affair. The biggest tech trade show, which typically takes place every January in Las Vegas, has been forced to go digital this year, thanks to the coronavirus.
Normally, CES is a huge physical event with exhibits sprawling across 2.9 million net square feet of space. Last year’s event attracted 171,268 attendees, including 6,517 members of the media. This year, the online-only event will be smaller, with perhaps 1,000 exhibitors and maybe 150,000 attendees, according to Gary Shapiro, who is CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES. Those numbers are not so bad in many ways, as they would still qualify as a huge digital experience. And more people who never had access to CES will be coming for the first time, boosting the show’s international numbers, Shapiro said in an interview. More than 100,000 people are already registered.
But it’s going to be a weird event. No doubt about that. I spoke with Shapiro about it during our usual preshow interview. He said the CTA had to make some agonizing decisions in the transition to digital, as the big conference — or lack of it — won’t create nearly as many jobs in Las Vegas as in past years. He said his confidence in an in-person event in January 2022 is growing, especially with the progress on vaccines. But the CTA had to shut down the physical side of CES 2021 and announced in July that it would move ahead with the digital-only format for the show, which starts on January 11 and runs for four days. The event will have a media day, as well as 100 hours of programming, albeit with sessions that are shorter than usual. (I’m hosting a session on cloud computing’s progress during the pandemic).
As for hot technologies, Shapiro sees 5G broadband wireless networks taking off, 8K TVs, enterprise technologies, health tech, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality, and drones. Sorting through it all to find the good stuff will probably be more challenging this year, but that’s where the media can help.
On the political and regulatory front, Shapiro sees some black clouds. He thinks regulators are making a mistake in going after the “crown jewels” of technology companies. He said, “It’s catnip to the European regulators and others who want to hurt U.S. companies. A lot of U.S. employees, stockholders, pension funds rely on these companies. They’re keeping the stock market aloft.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: How is CES different this year? It’s such a big change. How quickly did you have to make the decision to go virtual?
Gary Shapiro: It’s so different that I expect we will never have to do it again. Or at least I hope so. It’s given us this one-year window opportunity to try amazing things we’ve always wanted to do. Especially with the vaccine out, my confidence level for 2022 is growing. We’ve already started selling that event early. We started in November. We’re selling out halls already. There will be a physical event, and we also want to take the best and most effective things we’ve done digitally. We’re calling 2022 a hybrid event.
But for 2021, without worrying about the physical event, we’ve been focusing exclusively on the digital event since July. We went to a two-track approach beginning in March. We made the announcement, as you’re aware, in July, seven months ahead. We did it intentionally early to give everyone an opportunity to plan, so they could think about how they would express themselves in a digital venue, and also frankly so they could save some money. We decided there was no way there would be a widely available vaccine in time for CES, and so we felt the right thing to do was make the announcement and be part of the solution rather than the problem.
VentureBeat: I see you’re over 1,000 exhibitors. That’s not as many as usual, but what was key to hanging on to everyone and making sure that some of those folks wouldn’t just decide to skip a year?
Shapiro: Every company made its own decision. We offered everyone a refund if they wanted it, or credit toward next year. We were about as generous as we could possibly be. We’ve incurred a lot of our own costs. But we did a lot of research early in the year. We were very lucky. We represent the technology industry, which has done very well for the most part. Anyone selling anything to the home, any service, has done well. And our show was in January, before COVID-19 hit the United States. We weren’t one of these events that had to pivot in three weeks before a cancellation. We had more time to think about it, focus on it, look at other people’s experiences.
There’s a lot of goodwill, because of COVID-19, throughout the business community. People are somewhat forgiving and understanding. But the COVID-19 experiences people have had, where avatars go from physical exhibit to physical exhibit on a screen, that was less than satisfactory for both the people investing in the exhibit and the people investing in attending. We had to do something different. We couldn’t find anything off the shelf. We decided the only ones who were doing this right were the tech companies doing their own user events and application events.
Microsoft did an amazing job, and others as well. But they were the ones who had the highest satisfaction rate, the best attendance, and everything else. We have a long relationship with Microsoft, and they’re a member of ours. We decided we could create something and take advantage of the fact that they had Microsoft Teams, take advantage of their cloud. They have phenomenal production studios in Teams. That’s what this is. It’s not building an exhibit and they will come. You produce something compelling, essentially a telethon for a few days, video productions, and things like that. Our exhibitors are doing the same. Talking to our keynotes, they get it. A lot of the big companies get it. But we also wanted to offer something to smaller companies, startups. Eureka Park has been phenomenal. Our entry-level offering offers a lot.
We’re able to do things we’ve always wanted to do but we’ve never been able to do. We wanted to do the LinkedIn of events. When you register, you get the option to share your name with others. That’s already taken off. People are getting in contact, getting emails, linking up already. Before the show even starts, we’re feeling some satisfaction and success.
Another thing we’re doing, just about everyone who goes to CES says there isn’t enough time to see everything they want to. We’re giving show life for another 30 days afterward, where people will be able to see the exhibits, see the conferences, see the keynotes, even communicate with exhibitors if they’re interested and willing. We’ll also have a live aspect. A lot of the press conferences, 20-some press conferences, will allow Q&A periods for participation.
We want to make sure it’s still a very qualified audience, though. That’s why we’re urging press to register early because we’re afraid that if we get thousands of press trying to register in the last few days, we can’t get them into the press conferences. It’s the same with regular attendees.
VentureBeat: I’m happy not to have to wait in line for the Samsung event anymore.
Shapiro: We’re accessing some serious bandwidth to make sure people’s needs will be met along those lines. We’re getting very significant registration. A lot of it, more than average, is from outside the United States. That serves another need. A lot of people historically want to go to the show from other countries, and they just can’t. Now people are just registering. It’s very exciting.
We also have the keyword search opportunity. You create your own customized experience, whatever you’re interested in. At the same time, we tried to preserve serendipity, discovering things you didn’t know about. In addition to relying on journalists, we have four of our own anchors that will be putting out highlights on things coming up. It’s 24 hours a day. People access it from all over the world and see what they want to see, whether it’s in real time or after the show.
VentureBeat: How does the 150,000-attendee estimate come about?
Shapiro: It’s our average number we’ve had the last few years. But we don’t know. It’s a guesstimate at best. We just don’t know. There’s no other way to say it. Everyone expects us to give a number, so we did, but …
VentureBeat: I just wondered if it was an indication based on registration so far.
Shapiro: No, the registration only opened less than three weeks ago. Usually, we open registration on September 1. We’ve already had 100,000 preregistered in that time, though. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, of course. If you’re going to CES in a normal year, you have to invest in a hotel and airfare. We’re reluctant to make any comparisons. And a lot of people who register early often don’t go. That’s the case with any trade show. But what we’re trying to avoid, like I said, is last-minute registration. That’s a concern of ours.
VentureBeat: It sounds like you’re getting a benefit in terms of an international audience, then. People who couldn’t have come can attend now.
Shapiro: Every exhibitor gets a certain number of free registrations, but we’ve also offered our membership registrations. We’re also offering the keynotes on social media for anyone. You don’t have to be connected with the industry to watch the keynotes.
VentureBeat: Are you not as concerned about programming overlapping because there’s the ability to watch later?
Shapiro: That’s still carefully choreographed because people want to watch breaking news live. We’ll have more than 100 hours of programming, but we don’t want to have two drone sessions on at the same time, two of anything like that. I still think people want — there’s excitement in hearing about it for the first time. Now a lot of the programming may not be live because we’re dealing with panels and things like that. But certainly, some of it will be.
VentureBeat: I feel badly for Las Vegas itself. It has to be a huge blow.
Shapiro: We did two press conferences this week, one for Asia and the West Coast and one for Europe and the rest of the U.S. The late-night Asia one, they asked me what was most difficult, and I gave a lengthy answer. It was probably too long. But I came back to it later and said that honestly, the toughest thing for us was all the people in Las Vegas who look forward to CES to kick off the year. The calls we made in July before we went public were very difficult. I feel for them so much.
We’re still supporting local charities there. We’re making contributions to the big Las Vegas food bank and have done other things we’ve tried in the past to support them. As different and exciting as 2021 may be, we’re looking forward to a physical CES in 2022. We look forward to seeing people and looking them in the eye. We may still be wearing masks, but I’m confident we’ll figure it out one way or another.
VentureBeat: In what other ways has this become more difficult? What are the toughest decisions you’ve had to make in this transition?
Shapiro: Well, there’s the financial impact. I’m not going to lie. We had to cut back our spending. We’re a smaller staff now. We had to learn new skills. We had to reimagine CES. It was a great exercise, and we’ve come up with some cool, exciting things that no one else has done before. We’re excited about it.
But we’ve gotten good at producing a large physical event, and there are certain rhythms that we’re used to. Some things — it’s just an ah-ha moment. For example, we changed the dates of the show. Normally I wouldn’t be able to change the dates of the show for eight years from now. I can tell you what they’ll be. But five months out, we pushed it forward a week, more into January. A lot of that time is for post-production. People have to be uploading stuff. We felt they needed that extra week after the holidays.
It’s different in many, many ways. On the other hand, a lot of the things I’m usually worried about at this time of year, I’m not worried about them. We’d be talking about how to survey our attendees, journalists, and exhibitors after the show. We don’t have to ask about how their trip went, what the hotel was like. The opportunities are huge. There’s a lot of goodwill. But I don’t want to oversell it. You’re still sitting at home in front of a screen. We’ve had to cut down the time for panels considerably. Usually, it’s an hour standard, and now it’s 30 minutes.
VentureBeat: It’s interesting that you can show how innovation hasn’t stopped. Companies are still creating and launching new things.
Shapiro: It’s huge. We’re talking to companies that are really jazzed up. The keynoters are excited. They have stuff they want to announce. Just today, we announced another keynoter we’ve never had before, Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart. This week, we announced Ann Sarnoff from Warner Media. We have more announcements coming. Getting people to speak and participate is exciting. The live anchor guests will also be interviewing a lot of people who are relevant to the industry. We’ve never had that before.
VentureBeat: What categories do you foresee being hot or interesting?
Shapiro: We’ve been talking about resilience for a few years. We’ve had areas of the show on smart cities. Next-generation television, there’s a lot of excitement in broadcasting and more excitement than I expected from TV manufacturers. The TV world has something new, and they want to get it out to the world. People are cord-cutting, and so the over-the-air broadcast crowd, this helps out. It’s free, and it can do a lot.
Obviously, 5G is huge. We have the CEO of Verizon, Hans Vestberg. There’s a lot about the 5G infrastructure that’s becoming so much more important than anyone realized. We need broadband, and we need it across everything. Mobility, we have Mary Barra from GM. There’s the focus on electric cars and the focus on self-driving. We have the major car companies participating again. If you’re an infrastructure supplier in the auto industry, this gives you a real opportunity to shine. Then there’s robotics, AR and VR, drones. I have to mention health tech.
Industry sales are up significantly in 2020 because people needed tech for education, for working from home. They’re buying all sorts of things. Video games are off the charts. All sorts of things have jumped. 5G phones have jumped. 8K televisions hit almost a million units this year, and even more next year. 4K is incredible. There’s so much out there that’s had to change because of COVID-19. Companies now have the opportunity to talk about what’s different. Every company has something different because of COVID-19. The other side is looking at supply chain issues. That’s become a challenge for companies. But it’s created new opportunities in sourcing.
There’s always more news out there. A lot of people are on pins and needles as to whether the president will put tariffs on products from Vietnam. That one came out of the blue. They were labeled a currency manipulator two years ago, and now there are supposed to be hearings before the end of the year. Who knows? There’s the overhang of the change in administrations, a lot of policies that could happen at the last second.
VentureBeat: We have more of an enterprise focus these days. Do you see much of that at CES?
Shapiro: We definitely do. I talk to a lot of CEOs, and they keep educating me on all the stuff that goes on from an enterprise standpoint. It’s a show focused on innovation, and as I say in my opening keynote, people are doing deals at CES across categories, across verticals. That’s why, when we tried to create the digital venues, we talked about how to get those lines out real quickly from one industry and one company to another. That’s what CES is so valuable for. I’ve talked to representatives from many different companies in many different industries, and that’s what they stress.
If you look at some of the companies we have, huge market leaders from other categories have chosen to use the digital venue. Whether it’s agriculture or manufacturing, you name it. It’s shocking to me, some of the names in there. Leaders in industry.
VentureBeat: Is there anything big on your radar as far as the regulatory front?
Shapiro: If you count litigation, every day there’s news about a new company being sued by the government. A lot of our crown jewel companies. It’s catnip to the European regulators and others who want to hurt U.S. companies. A lot of U.S. employees, stockholders, pension funds rely on these companies. They’re keeping the stock market aloft. It seems like a peculiar strategy, to attack our best companies through these vague laws. And to go back with a subpoena request like the FTC has, going back years with these broad requests that cripple companies — look what happened to Microsoft when that happened years ago. They stood still for several years. It’s not a good idea.
Section 230 is obviously top of mind. Facebook and Google, the neighborhood companies, the ratings companies, all these things we rely on as consumers to figure out where we should eat, what places we should stay in — so many things are connected with that. Policymakers are divorced from reality on this one, frankly. Republicans and Democrats are angry at a few companies because they think they’re being mistreated, but they’re oblivious to the fact that most Americans are very happy writing comments and things like that. Companies have done an amazing job — like Facebook. To have the State Department evaluating every [political ad placed on a company’s social platform] and their politics, whether their political ads are accurate or not — it’s just impossible, what they’re demanding. And it obviously has constitutional ramifications that are absolutely huge.
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