Maybe We Don’t Need an In-Person CES?

Maybe We Don’t Need an In-Person CES?
Photo: Ethan Miller / Staff, Getty Images

CES is coming back to Vegas. The show’s parent organisation, the Consumer Technology Association, will hold an in-person event in Las Vegas in January 2022 after putting on a decidedly muted online event last summer.

“We’re thrilled to return to Las Vegas – home to CES for more than 40 years – and look forward to seeing many new and returning faces,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the CTA. “Hundreds of executives have told us how much they need CES to meet new and existing customers, find partners, reach media and discover innovation.”

And I bet Vegas is excited for the opportunity to host the massive event. It’s a money-maker, to be sure, and it keeps many in the hospitality industry flush for the first half of the year.

But do we really need to meet in Vegas to see a new laptop?

The CTA announcement follows similar plans to hold Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year along with IFA, an event usually held in Berlin. These massive events, part circus and part sales meeting, are popular with CE manufacturers that announce their latest and greatest to a wide array of visitors and press. They’re also a way to escape the day-to-day drudgery of office work. There’s a reason the nicer hotels and restaurants are booked months in advance of CES: People use it as a chance to order a steak on the company’s dime.

Whether these plans will be stymied by further covid-19 lockdowns remains to be seen, but, as you might agree, the thought of jostling around a convention centre and hotels with thousands of global CE executives sounds like bad news. While I, like you, just want to get out of the damn house, do we really need big shows like this one? As 2021 has proven, we’ve all survived the difficult experience of not being in the same room as each other. While the older generation still sees the value of face-to-face meetings, I suspect Millennials are just fine with Zoom calls and the occasional cafe meeting. Work from home will probably become the norm in the next few years, a massive change for many of those same people who see an in-person CES as an important part of the year.

The bigger question, however, is why hold in-person events at all? As evidenced by this year of lockdown, many of the announcements and plans still happened, albeit digitally. Apple has perfected the digital event, reducing the need for the press to visit its Cupertino headquarters to see some new laptops. Further, digital events have proven to be an acceptable alternative to getting sick from a drunk dude fondling all of the sushi at some buffet.

We tech journalists love to complain about CES but, in the end, it’s a networking thing. You also get to talk to people that you haven’t seen in a whole year and might not otherwise talk to without the spontaneity. It’s a nice feeling for extroverts and kind of annoying for introverts. Given our collective desire for every day to not be an endless parade of the same thing, over and over, the prospect of going anywhere, including Vegas, does sound appealing.

But, again, do we need to experience it in the way it currently exists? Do we need to all fly into a city, walk around multiple huge halls, eat from the same trough at Circus Circus, and cough into each others’ mouths? Do we need to burn the skies with a thousand planes a day flying into McCarran Airport from points across the globe? Do we have to spend time and money walking from expensive, disposable booth to expensive, disposable booth?

For now, apparently, the answer is yes. But with advances in VR and a general acceptance that things don’t have to be like they were before anymore could change the events industry forever. Just as self-driving vehicles will displace thousands of drivers, a muted events industry will be equally damaging to local and global economies. While I doubt one year of lockdown will prevent CES from turning Las Vegas into a madhouse in 2022, I’d like to see what CE companies do when they realise the money they saved in 2021 is gone and that, for the foreseeable future, they’ll have to look at a massive line item and decide whether it’s worth attending an in-person event again in 2023. The world’s not quite ready for CES and other massive events to disappear, but, given the ease with which it abandoned them this year, I can imagine a day when all events are some kind of VR extravaganza. The future is coming and we are dealing with limited resources of time, attention, and energy. CES 2022 will go on as planned. I wonder what 2030 and beyond will bring.