Like many others, I attended CES this past week. Of course, so did my entire family, thanks to the always-on nature of the show during my workday and the always-present nature of my family here at the Scarinzi Quarantine Compound. Truly, life is different now than it was last January: no flights, no pre-show events, no fancy restaurants (or overpriced sandwich wraps), and sadly, no reunions with friends, clients, reporters, and peers. But as the saying goes, “the show must go on,” and CES did exactly that. So, how was it?

I do miss the chaos (am I the only one?). Picture a mid-sized city descending upon another, slightly larger city for a week, and you’ll start to understand CES in normal times. The virtual edition of the show eliminated the drudgery of wading through crowds for miles at a time all day, every day, stripping away the chaos of the world’s largest consumer tech show. In some ways, that’s a good thing. Who wants to be surrounded by 200,000 strangers anymore? But on the other hand, a live CES always leads to serendipitous encounters with people, brands, and products and there are limitations to such things in a virtual environment. As ever, I enjoyed the daily exchanges with the reporters and clients I’ve been attached to for months, but it isn’t quite CES until you’re eating greasy food and commiserating with all those people in-person at CES Unveiled, at the LVCC, at the Sands Convention Hall, and everywhere in between.

Hidden gems remain hard to find. Building off the idea of serendipitous discoveries, this one will continue to stymie conference organizers designing virtual events. There’s something to be said for walking the floor, eyes trained on those under-the-radar products and brands. A virtual equivalent of that experience was missing this year – pre-recorded press conferences can’t hope to compare with real, human interactions. There is hope for the future, however. Not only because live events will eventually return (they have to, right? …right??), but because of the potential of platforms pushing the boundaries of virtual experiences, like the one powered by Spatial Web, which simulated the “move around a room” exploration experience of a live trade show. Smaller brands always struggle to steal attention, but this year’s format made it more difficult than ever. Some unsolicited advice for organizers: convene a panel to review all brands under a certain level of funding and provide a platform for the best of the best to be noticed.

The job is still the job. As expected, and right in line with tradition, most of the hard work for communications professionals remains in the pre-show portion of the proceedings. Yes, every day during CES – virtual or otherwise – means living and breathing the show for hours at a time. However, my team and I have been at this thing since August. If you don’t lay the foundation for a successful show before most are even thinking about it, good luck catching up at the eleventh hour. Part of the job, too, is being a resource for, and never a hindrance on, the responsibility of reporters in the lead-up to the show. We live in crazy times, but articles still need to be filed and perspective on the latest innovations emanating from our computer screens still must be formed and shared. In this way, CES 2021 was very much the same as every previous edition.

CTA succeeded in delivering a suitable alternative. Look, it’s not easy to put on CES in a normal year let alone this year when we’re all punch drunk and stir crazy having spent months in our homes, with minimal social options and on endless video calls – not one of them uninterrupted by our children and pets. Given its near insurmountable task, CTA kept the lights on and gave brands a platform to be seen and heard. Not everything was perfect, but when is it ever? I can see some of what we experienced living on even when live events resume. For example, the portal for attendees to watch panels and keynotes created a smoother viewing experience than in past years. I also think CTA will learn from what worked and what didn’t, and any virtual components to future shows will be light years better.

New needs call for new priorities. Think back to a year ago. How have your priorities changed? Do you hold certain comforts in higher regard now given all we’ve been through these past several months? The novel coronavirus has forced so many to live differently and that livelihood is now centered on preserving our health and preparing our home for all its side hustles – work, school, gym, restaurants, and so on. As such, the pandemic loomed large over this year’s virtual show. Themes of hygiene and cleanliness, home (as home and as office), and virtual escape carried the show along with the ever-present emphasis on (big!) screens, (foldable!) screens, and more (super hi-def!) screens. We are short on entertainment options these days, so enhancements to movie nights are certainly welcomed in most households.

Someday, we’ll go places again. And when we do, we need smarter transportation. Many years ago, CES began doubling as an auto show, but this time, the focus evolved away from its singular focus on autonomous to more news surrounding electric vehicles and in-vehicle intelligence: voice assistants, smart displays, and everything we need to be safe and informed on the road. That’s to say nothing of the air taxis and other next-level windows into our aspirational traveling future that CES wouldn’t be CES without.

Virtual events are a common, often-criticized experience given our enduring circumstances. While the first virtual CES was nowhere near the experience all of us in tech have grown accustomed to in years past, expectations that it would be on-par with the live show would have been unrealistic. In the end, it was a valiant effort to capture the best of CES and get as close as possible to normal.

There are several learnings, too, for communications professionals and those nurturing a brand’s positioning in these virtual environments. First, take chances and push the boundaries of what these virtual platforms permit. For example, a few exhibitors at CES utilized the press conference function to host their own live panels and provide virtual tours and product demos in fully built-out booths – a much more creative and immersive use of the platform than the stagnant recorded stump speech. When most brands are simply checking boxes, different tends to stand out. At a show like CES, standing out is almost always better than the alternative.

Second, pre-briefs are a must-do every year leading into CES, but they proved especially mission-critical this year. Details about how a virtual CES would unfold remained a mystery deep into December. That’s okay: Brands that started the pre-brief process early and told their story long before details about the show itself crystallized were ahead of the game with regarding to getting their story across.

Third, producing and distributing high-quality video assets was more important in 2021 than ever before. The immersive qualities of a traditional CES are hard to replicate in a virtual environment. That said, because reporters and bloggers wouldn’t be able to capture video content on their own, making product demos and b-roll available via the virtual CES platform served brands well both in terms of educating people about the operation and functions of new products while also providing publishable assets media could use to inform their coverage of the show. The importance of video / visual assets reached new heights during the virtual show and I can see a future where more brands invest in video production to supplement the in-booth experience (should it return in 2022).

At an event featuring so many brands, announcements, and approaches to launch, there are myriad topics worthy of discussion – what stood out to you? I’d love to hear from you.