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How We Made the Worlds Largest Business Event All-Digital

Gary Shapiro

Early each January, CES® – the world’s most influential tech event – fills up Las Vegas' massive convention centers and hotels with over 4000 tech exhibitors. It attracts some 170,000 inventors, entrepreneurs, retailers, investors and media. But our world changed one late Friday afternoon in January 2020, when word got out that Wuhan, China, locked down with an unknown virus. 


Having written three books and hundreds of articles on innovation, I am passionate about responding quickly to changing events. As February made clear the virus was ravaging China, we prepared for the possibility the virus could change our operations. We instituted new health and safety measures at our headquarters – the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® owns and produces CES – slowed our spending and rigorously enforced a hiring freeze we put in place in anticipation of a recession. Our governing board met in early March and decided the virus required us to cancel or shrink smaller meetings. For CES 2021 in January – although 10 months away – we decided to proceed on two tracks: first, a combined physical and digital show; second, an all-digital event.






We closed our office for a day and a half to see if everyone could work remotely. We had a staff face-to-face meeting where I tried to balance between optimism and realism. I was concerned fighting the virus could be a long haul. I understood politicians and CEOs wanting to get people through the short-term, but I didn't understand the refusal to face reality. Appalled at the lack of national direction in fighting the virus with leadership on mask wearing and the benefit of fresh air, my wife – a doctor – published a commonsense piece on steps everyone could take to avoid getting and spreading the virus. 


In March, we acted quickly to close our office building, promote remote work and help our employees with a stipend for office supplies and a refund of their office parking payments. We cut expenses, shifted our meetings to Zoom and, sadly, had to lay off 10% of our staff. We spent the spring exploring scores of options that could accommodate an all-digital CES production. We also focused on helping the industry deal with the virus. We promoted the benefits of telehealth, remote monitoring and telework innovations. We surveyed consumers, created a website with the federal government on digital health resources and shifted all our efforts to serving our members and planning for an all-digital January CES.


We asked hundreds of companies what they would want in an all-digital CES and compared over 50 off-the-shelf digital meeting platforms. I talked with fellow association leaders and trade show CEOs. Almost every leader was frustrated that existing options tried to recreate the physical trade show experience with virtual booths and avatars that visited them. What they wanted was to do business, meet existing and prospective customers and get their message out to media, investors and others focused on business and relationships.


In the spring, we still had not given up on the possibility of a physical event – with added safety and hygiene precautions. We had great ideas, explored testing for antibodies and for COVID-19 – and even discovered one of our board members had a novel approach measuring temperature changes as an indicator of COVID-19.


However, by May, I was increasingly pessimistic a vaccine could be proven to work, manufactured and widely available in time for CES 2021. More, while most CEOs were eager for us to proceed, their staffs were concerned about business travel. In July, our board met and agreed unanimously we should go all-digital for 2021 and be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We knew this would be a huge financial hit, but we had moral clarity and a clear decision.


This early decision in June to skip a year of the in-person, physical CES – seven months from the event – was unprecedented in the exhibition world. It was tragic for our friends in Las Vegas, who were looking to CES 2021 and the New Year as allowing them to come back. We knew it affected thousands of jobs and lives in Las Vegas. The phone calls CES Executive Vice President Karen Chupka and I had before our July 28 press announcement were the hardest phone calls I have made. The Las Vegas executives were gracious and understanding, but we felt their sadness. Our contributions to various Las Vegas charities were simply not enough to make up for their collective pain.


Deciding this so far in advance gave us time to focus on how to create the all-digital event our industry needed – and that the CES brand demanded. We defined the goal as a high-quality, well-produced event allowing the innovators in the world to gather, discover, deal, innovate and do business. We wanted every attendee to be wowed, to have a personalized and customized experience and to welcome those who had never experienced CES. We wanted a greater global audience. We wanted to start 2021 with optimism and excitement. We wanted to ensure our industry could do business during the pandemic. And we wanted to delight, to educate and to entertain.


We realized quickly an all-digital event meant producing and sharing video programming, and creating the opportunity for companies to introduce themselves, find and meet customers, investors and media. We realized we had to find a partner who could help us. With Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jean Foster leading our effort, we realized the obvious choice was Microsoft.


With Microsoft Teams we could have a platform for meetings. With Microsoft Cloud (Azure) we could have a secure and safe way to store and distribute the video content. With Microsoft's vast broadcast production facilities in their HQ in Redmond, WA, we could produce and create content. And with their experience producing their own digital corporate events we had knowledge, experience and a team who could fill in the gaps we had on our much smaller team whose expertise was focused on face-to-face events. In October, we went out to the anxious-but-enthusiastic exhibitors with our offering. We hoped and planned for 1000 interested exhibiting companies – companies that not only wanted to make the investment to participate, but could create something special for the platform in a few weeks. 


It is one thing to decide to have an all-digital event – it is another to get out of the mindset of a physical event. A defining moment occurred when Karen Chupka suggested we push the show a week into the future to give companies more time to prepare their final post-production video presence. The shift was inconceivable in the physical world pre-pandemic, as Las Vegas booked big events years ahead and one event change affects everyone else. But in the digital world, it was far more simple. The date change not only made sense to most of our customers, but helped change the thinking of our staff. Going all-digital also allowed us to extend the show – allowing our platform to stay live for 30 days – until Feb. 15 – so every pre-registered attendee could return, watch every conference and keynote if they wanted, and even visit, communicate and meet with exhibitors. We are now seeing the benefits as thousands return to the CES show site each day!


Going all-digital also allowed us to reimagine CES and do things we always wanted to do. For example, every person who pre-registered could opt-in and share their information and interests with others on the platform. This allowed people to connect ahead of time, during and after and create a digital LinkedIn experience. Over 70,000 of our pre-registered attendees opted into this!


We also created an anchor desk to present the event content in context, report live on CES news and product debuts and share interviews with tech sector leaders. I was thrilled to participate and interviewed Mark Cuban, top Biden Administration economic official Brian Deese, French Minister Cedric O and Netherlands Prince Constantijn. With four tech-savvy journalists – Rich DeMuro, Justine Ezarik (iJustine), Naomi Kyle and Brian Tong – anchoring our coverage over three days getting live engagement from the CES audience, we had the excitement of a live event.


We also hosted some 20 company press conferences on Media Day and gave nearly 40 exhibitors the opportunity to “spotlight" their company with live demonstrations, product introductions and deep-dive discussions of their innovations.


We asked everyone registering for CES 2021 to outline their interests. This allowed us to target conferences and companies in their areas ahead of CES, so they could plan their visits and set up meetings to watch the live conference sessions and keynotes. Any registered attendee could go on the site and search by category to discover relevant companies, visit their microsites or set up meetings.


Did we accomplish what we set out to do?


We wanted 1000 exhibitors and had to cut it off at nearly 2000, including almost 700 startups. We wanted to invite the world to attend, and close to half of pre-registrants were from outside the U.S. (our usual international total is one-third of attendees). Also, 1420 exhibitors came from companies located outside the U.S. We wanted happy exhibitors and, so far, it seems most were thrilled.


We wanted excitement. We got it! Opening keynoter Mary Barra of General Motors presented a new logo and a vision for electrification – her company’s stock finished the week 16% higher following GM’s 2021 EV announcements! AMD's Lisa Su, Best Buy's Corie Barry and Walmart's Doug McMillon shared why their companies have thrived before and during the pandemic. Verizon's Hans Vestberg showed why 5G is the future. Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Brad Smith conveyed the opportunity and challenges of AI. Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO of MediaLink, and Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, discussed the ever-evolving entertainment industry. 


And our staff? They are exhausted, but know they made digital event history. Each person dug deep, learned new skills and tackled new challenges. Our CES team – who was used to running our transportation and creating floor plans and facilities – started working on video productions. Our back-office team became prospectors and customer service reps. My executive assistant joined the sales team. Crises show us who people really are, and our team stepped up without complaint, working weekends, nights and holidays. They knew our industry needed us to be ninjas – to pivot quickly and adjust. The show must go on – and it did, just digitally!


We now look forward to January 5-8, 2022. Over 1000 companies have already signed on to exhibit in Las Vegas at CES 2022, and we plan for a hybrid event. We want to keep and improve on the best of the digital experience to reach the world and extend the reach of the show. We know our all-digital event couldn't recreate the excitement of Las Vegas, and although we worked hard to allow discovery digitally – nothing can replace the many serendipitous moments we get seeing old friends, discovering new people and new innovative offerings. After all, innovation is about putting different things and people together to create something new!


Our biggest takeaway from CES 2021 is that although technology is simply amazing at bringing us closer – and, especially, at allowing us to move forward during the pandemic – as humans we need each other. Nothing can replace the five-sense experience of getting together with those we care about or share a common interest. Amid this dark pandemic, we see the light at the end of the tunnel as the vaccines deploy.


Technology is a wonderful tool – it will continue to improve our lives, health, education and mobility. But we need in-person, face time with other people. At CES, we are stronger because we adapted – and we will continue to adapt.

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