It’s official — CES 2021 will be a virtual trade show this January for the first time in the consumer electronics show’s more than 50 year history — yet another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event’s organizer the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) made the announcement Tuesday morning, saying one of the world’s largest trade shows will switch from being a physical show in Las Vegas to an “all-digital experience connecting exhibitors, customers, thought leaders and media from around the world.”

Rumors had been circulating for the past couple of weeks that the organization’s executive board had been leaning against going forward with the event as a physical show, following the recent re-spiking of the infection rate across the country.

Past CES events have attracted up to 180,000 attendees from around the globe, making it a significantly risky hot spot for potential new waves of the infection.

In fact, news reports speculating that CES 2020 could have been a trigger point for the outbreak in the United States circulated several weeks into the start of shelter-in-place initiatives last winter, but this has been widely refuted as word of the pandemic began some weeks after news of the outbreak was known. Last year’s CES took place well ahead of any such indications.

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Both CTA and, individually, some major exhibiting companies had been conducting their own discrete polls in recent weeks of guests and media from past CES events about their feelings on attending a physical show this year. Not surprisingly, sources told us that many expressed their apprehension about attending as new infection numbers started climbing.

The timing of CTA’s announcement should give exhibitors and attendees a chance to cancel reservations for hotels and airlines and avoid any further spending on exhibit booth logistics.

According to the official statement on CES 2021 going virtual, the new format “will allow participants to hear from technology innovators, see cutting-edge technologies and the latest product launches, and engage with global brands and startups from around the world.”

“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,” stated Gary Shapiro, president and CEO, CTA. “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. By shifting to an all-digital platform for 2021, we can deliver a unique experience that helps our exhibitors connect with existing and new audiences.”

Not much has been formally disclosed yet on how the new virtual format will work, but we had heard some companies had been looking into doing their own virtual press events coordinated in the context of CTA’s virtual CES. CTA said the virtual showcase will be “an immersive experience, where attendees will have a front row seat to discover and see the latest technology. This highly personalized experience will bring a global event to the comfort and safety of your home or office.”

The CTA said its goal for CES 2021 is to present an “engaging platform for companies large and small to launch products, build brands and form partnerships, while prioritizing health and safety. Members of the tech community thrive by coming together, sharing ideas and introducing products that will shape our future.”

In a separate announcement to the media, CTA said:

Virtual CES 2021 will be an “unique experience for the tech industry” offering “a highly personalized experience for media”.

This will include: digital press events for brands; and product showcases where media can explore devices and services through live demos based on specific beats and interests.

Plans also include online keynotes and conferences for announcements and insights from tech leaders, and a chance to meet and network with companies and leaders.

“Technology has helped us all work, learn and connect during the coronavirus pandemic, and it has presented real solutions to help solve complex global challenges. We recognize that, particularly in these uncertain times, it is the partnerships of some of the most creative minds that bring the best solutions to life,” CTA’s statement to media said.

The new virtual event will take place the first week in January with further details to follow.

CTA added, “We plan to return to Las Vegas for CES 2022, combining the best elements of a physical and digital show.”

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By Greg Tarr

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