CES 2021 Is Now Officially an All-Digital Experience

Conor Cawley

All the optimism in the world couldn't make an in-person CES 2021 happen, as the world's largest trade show has officially been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cancelling of tech conferences was one of the first signs that the pandemic was going to be disruptive, and not in a fun, entrepreneurial way. From SXSW in mid-March to E3 in June, many believed these cancellations would help curb the spread of the virus, opening the door to more events in 2021.

Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case, as the Consumer Trade Association (CTA) has announced that CES 2021 will be entirely digital, with no in-person events whatsoever.

CES 2021 Will Be All Digital

In a press release, the CEO of CTA, Gary Shapiro, announced that CES 2021 would no longer have an in-person component and will be held entirely online, citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the change of heart.

“Amid the pandemic and growing global health concerns about the spread of COVID-19, it’s just not possible to safely convene tens of thousands of people in Las Vegas in early January 2021 to meet and do business in person,” said Shapiro.

Let's be honest, this was a very good call. With cases continuing to rise in the US and tech conferences representing arguably the worst environment to contain a global pandemic, hosting CES 2021 in Las Vegas with tens of thousands of attendees from around the world was always going to need a miracle to be safe.

Fortunately, despite CTA's announcement a month ago that they were still planning on hosting the event in person, albeit with a number of safety measures in place, the company was happy to walk back the statement to prioritize safety.

What to Expect at CES 2021

CES is the largest trade show in the world, so you can bet there are going to be some exciting additions to the online-only conference experience. Unfortunately, we haven't gotten any details so far about what that will entail, outside of a promised “new immersive experience, where attendees will have a front row seat to discover and see the latest technology.”

“Technology helps us all work, learn and connect during the pandemic – and that innovation will also help us reimagine CES 2021 and bring together the tech community in a meaningful way,” said Shapiro.

CTA also noted that CES 2021 would be “highly personalized,” although it's hard to say exactly how that will manifest at a conference that's all about the big picture, particularly when you consider the scope of this decision.

What This Means for Future Tech Conferences

As arguably one of the most well-known tech conferences of the 21st century, it's safe to say the decision to cancel is going to make an impact on the industry as a whole. Given the event wasn't supposed to take place until early January, what does it say about the viability of tech conferences moving forward in the next year?

“When one of the largest consumer electronics show in the world signals it is not viable to have a physical event, it sends a strong signal that these types of events will be near-impossible to hold in coming months,” said Ben Wood, Chief of Research at CCS Insight, in an interview with Tech.co.

Honestly, with CES throwing in the towel on an in-person event six months ahead of schedule, the future of tech conferences doesn't look too bright. After all, if CTA can't pull it off, who can?

The Rise of All-Digital Conferences

Given the nature of tech conferences, you'd think an online-only event would be not only easy but also fun. Surfing through a trade show from your laptop, not missing a single talk, and doing the whole thing in your underwear sounds pretty great, right?

Unfortunately, that's not entirely the case. While the evolution of the internet has allowed for tech conferences to still host events, the reality is that the allure of these kinds of conferences goes far beyond talks and trade shows. The human networking element goes a long way, as does the interactivity of it all.

Comic-Con is a great example of this problem. While “attendees” appreciated the effort put in by movie studios and others, it truly just isn't the same as being there in person, and it could be because no one has figured out exactly how to replicate the conference experience online.

“Right now it doesn’t feel like anyone’s figured out how to make a replacement for the live event,” said Tony B. Kim, a Comic-Con vendor to IndieWire.

That won't necessarily be the case forever though. Given the presumably prolonged nature of this global pandemic, tech conferences are going to have plenty of time to figure out exactly how to engage attendees in a meaningful way that, while not exactly like the in-person experience, still checks all the boxes for a good time. And hopefully, January is enough time for CES to figure it out.

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Conor is the Senior Writer for Tech.co. For the last four years, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His extensive background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host tech-centric events like Startup Night at SXSW and the Timmy Awards for Tech in Motion. You can email Conor at conor@tech.co.

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