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COVID has been brutal to a lot of businesses over the last year: small shops, restaurants, boutique autotech marketing firms. And events, like our industry’s favorite “love to hate” show CES. In the face of limited travel and restricted gatherings, CES was amazingly able to transform this year’s event into an online experience. Nobody I know faults them for trying to pivot a massive industry juggernaut on a dime. Admittedly, it wasn’t a great experience, but as the primary marker of the autotech year, at least it was there.
CES 2021: a trip in the wayback machine
This year’s virtual CES was able to tick off the boxes of what we nominally go there for – meetings, networking, exhibits – but in the most unembellished, austere, and Web 1.0 way. You weren’t pulled through the experience, you had to purposefully seek it out. If you wanted to get any value out of CES 2021, you had to dedicate yourself to boatloads of screen time like our friends at Strategy Analytics, SBD, and CNET did. Probably only a reporter or an analyst has the stamina for the brutal experience of watching video after endless video until one’s eyes bleed.
CES doesn’t have to be at the center of the corporate marketing spend.
Nancy and I had far less tolerance – we watched the opening keynote, grazed a bit, then got bored and went back to work. And we were actual “attendees”. Far more industry folks I know didn’t even bother, they just skimmed the post-show news articles.
CES caught COVID and the long term prognosis doesn’t look good
The virtual event could have been much better, but that’s not the fundamental problem. We see the death of CES on the horizon, even after COVID is vanquished. We have experienced the zenith of CES frenzy and it’s all downhill from here.
The world has discovered Zoom meetings. Exhibitors have discovered videos. And at the end of this quarter’s accounting, CFOs will have discovered how much cheaper it is to make a video than it is to make a video andfabricate a booth, ship it and pay for assembly, train and fly staff, pay for hotels and meals, get the booth torn down, and ship everything back to storage.
Having been intimately involved in CES planning and production for several companies, we know that obscene amounts of money are typically spent there. If everything can be done virtually, why continue to support such massively expensive events? Especially if you can do it on your own terms. Just like Apple who’s shunned CES for years now, there’s no doubt that after this year companies will see that CES doesn’t have to be the center of their marketing spend. They’ll start hosting their own (mostly virtual) events instead of bothering with CES.
Why we – most of us anyway – dread CES
I’ve been going to CES since “automotive” consisted of a handful of mostly empty cubicle-style partitions in North Hall. The reason for going was always “everyone else is going to be there.” As each year comes to an end, I know I’ll soon be plunged into the frantic, barely controlled chaos that is another CES. Everything is loud, crowded, overblown, and overexposed, just like its host town, Las Vegas. Sure, some of my friends like Alex Roy and Andrew Poliak seem to be born for it. But for the majority of us, it’s a dutiful chore rather than a definite pleasure.
The virtual event could have been much better but that’s not the problem.
And that’s why I have to eat a bit of crow. Because I actually missed it this year.
What we’re going to lose
I didn’t miss the overcrowded plane with ever-shrinking seats, but I missed the instant “war veteran” camaraderie in walking down the airplane aisle and hearing shouts of “Hey Andy!” from fellow CES-goers.
I didn’t miss the waiting in endless taxi lines or Uber surges, but I missed the chance to stand coatless in the warm sun, far from the snow drifts of home.
I didn’t miss the mile-long queues for mediocre cafeteria food, but I did miss the amazing restaurants on and off the strip.
I didn’t miss the non-stop walking until my feet were on fire, but I did miss the chance to browse the world’s technology showcase and unexpectedly run into friends in the sea of humanity.
I didn’t miss the smoky casinos or the many vices on display, but I missed the buzz of excitement, the joy in meeting new people, and the sense that there was always something new to be seen.
The king is dead
This year has passed a milestone: CES is destined to decay, pandemic or not. It had been collecting steam for years now, but COVID has let the air out of the tires. While my wallet, my arches, and my sleep will no doubt be the better for it, we will have lost a key part of a long autotech tradition. Despite whatever else you may feel about CES, it gave us major projects to look forward to, infused the industry with excitement, and kept reconnecting our networks. A smattering of virtual self-hosted events won’t ever take its place.
From one of the most reluctant attendees out there, the foreseeable death of CES makes me a little sad. Goodbye my friend, I’ll miss you.