A Digital CES Means Big Opportunity For Bold, Innovative Brands

By Joe Maglio, CEO, McKinney

The Consumer Electronics Show (aka, CES) is the largest tech event in the world. It sets the bar with the highest attendance of any annual trade show in the U.S. Not to mention that it’s the convention that brings the most revenue to Las Vegas. And in 2021, it will be entirely virtual.

This decision doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Every January, close to 200,000 attendees and thousands of exhibitors would typically fly in from more than 160 countries for the event. The Las Vegas Convention Center, hotels, bars, restaurants, and clubs would all be packed wall-to-wall with people. Lines for taxis and Ubers are often hundreds of yards long with conventiongoers standing in close proximity. None of this is possible now as the country — and the world — tries to control the spread of COVID-19.

The Consumer Technology Association, the group that owns and produces CES, had two choices — postpone or go virtual. I imagine that trying to move one of the largest trade shows in the world presents many challenges, not the least of which is the logistics of the event itself. More importantly, though, the breaking news and announcements — cornerstones of CES — that are planned well in advance are often an integral component of a company’s sales and marketing plans. For many years running, McKinney has produced exhibits and experiences at CES on behalf of Samsung, DuPont, Coway, and others, all of which were tied to the timing of the latest innovations and product releases. The physical exhibits increase in scale every year and the experiences become more impactful, which makes the pivot to an all-digital CES that much more complex for exhibitors (i.e., brands).

As my optimistic side has been saying for the last 10 months, with challenge comes opportunity. In this case, the opportunity is to leverage the very technology that is talked about at CES to bring CES to life. So, what do brands need to think about to be ready for a virtual CES in January?

If you build it, they will not necessarily come

Unlike the traditional in-person experience at CES, people won’t be wandering the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Instead of a captive audience of a couple hundred-thousand people within a two-mile radius, you’ll be dealing with that many people (or more) spread across the world. And for those meetings that would typically be booked ahead of time, remember: Without the face-to-face interaction, it will be easier for attendees to feel less guilty about being a no-show. Outreach in advance is more critical than ever.

Measure twice, cut once

Normally, this is what our experiential producers utter myriad times as our exhibits are being constructed under their watchful eyes. The same thinking applies to building a digital experience for CES 2021. It’s far too easy to step away from a screen if an experience is subpar or, in the worst case, stops working. Only use the tech that your team or your partners are comfortable with and, ideally, have already leveraged successfully. The experience doesn’t have to be cutting edge — better to err on the side of simple, efficient, and reliable.

The experience is innovation

As important as the exhibits are, it’s the meetings outside of the conference venues — small group dinners, chance run-ins at the parties, and the inspiration that can come from a single conversation in a hotel lobby — that really pay off. While there are components of CES that, like any successful event, have become over the top, I’ve always found the intangible aspects of being there to be as valuable as anything else. The real magic will be how brands and media companies bring the intangible aspects of the physical event into the virtual world. Those who create a brand experience that exceeds expectations will get as much attention as the latest product announcement.

If there was ever an event that can benefit from using an all-digital format to make significant leaps forward, it’s CES. And there is no doubt that the best practices from CES 2021 will shape what the event will look like for years to come. My hope is that the evolution of “attending” CES will be even more dynamic, more productive, and, most importantly, more accessible.