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Big Trade Shows Have All Been Canceled. Why They May Never Come Back.

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Big Trade Shows Have All Been Canceled. Why They May Never Come Back.

By Eric J. Savitz

As I watched Tim Cook and his colleagues deliver their virtual keynote at Apple’s developer conference this past week, I had a surprising realization: The digital show was better than the annual event I’ve spent years covering in person. 

Apple used much of its two-hour broadcast to preview software, but it was also a homage to Apple’s impressive headquarters. The opening shot came from the Steve Jobs Theater. From there, the camera moved around Apple Park, highlighting executives across the campus. It was an Apple infomercial, and I was hooked. 

Apple (ticker: AAPL) won’t say how many viewers watched its live stream, but you can bet it was a lot more people than fit in the San Jose McEnerny Convention Center, where the event usually takes place. As of Thursday, more than nine million people had watched the keynote on YouTube. Monday’s show was just the start of the virtual developers conference—the part designed for non-coders like me. Actual developers get multiple sessions spread over a week. And this year, they could watch in their jammies. 

The success of Apple’s event foreshadows larger issues for the sprawling corporate event business. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of corporate conferences, trade shows, and customer meetings. It’s been felt particularly hard in the technology community, which loves to gather sales people, customers, software programmers, and reporters to show off the latest innovations.

There’s little chance the live business events will resume before the end of the year. And it could be longer than that. As of now, the Consumer Technology Association still plans to hold CES, the year’s biggest tech event, next January. 

CTA President Gary Shapiro says he is “realistic but optimistic” about the prospects for a live event in January, and that he’s heard from over 1,000 companies that want the show to go on. “We’re human beings, and we want to get together,” he says. Shapiro confirms some form of CES is coming, whether physical or virtual.

Shapiro promises more hand sanitizer, less handshaking, and more face masks. But when I talk to tech execs, the bet is that a live 2021 show won’t happen at all. 

The stakes are too high to give up on live events altogether. Tech events generate billions of dollars for hotels, airlines, restaurants, convention centers, and a host of other businesses. They also play a crucial role in the tech ecosystem. CES is an endless series of keynotes, parties and press events, but behind the scenes, CES is all about face-to-face meetings.

Those things all feel like luxuries now. The industry can’t wait around for a vaccine—it has software to sell and quotas to hit. The events business is moving on, which is to say, moving online. And a good part of the business might just stay there.

Apple isn’t the only company experimenting with virtual events. This past week,Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) held a virtual edition of Discover, the enterprise tech giant’s flagship customer event. Until mid-March, the company was planning a live event in Las Vegas, with 10,000-plus attendees. 

But the company pivoted to a virtual event—and it worked. “Going virtual gave us the ability to open the aperture and get much broader exposure,” says Jim Jackson, the chief marketing officer of HPE. He notes that the event had more than 75,000 registered attendees, and over 750,000 watched CEO Antonio Neri’s keynote recorded from his home, where he is recovering from Covid-19.

Jackson says content was adjusted for the virtual format. The conference streamed around the clock to match the needs of a global customer base, with sessions in 10 different languages.

Earlier this month, Cisco (CSCO) turned Cisco Live, its customer event that drew 28,000 people last year, into an online experience, as well. Alessandra Sapiz, Cisco’s vice president for global events, says the digital version drew 125,000 people. The online format meant keeping days shorter—two six-hour blocks over two days, with 59 total sessions and hundreds of others offered online on demand. Cisco still tried to have “surprise and delight” moments, Sapiz says, which included musical performances from the Chainsmokers, Sting, and Fall Out Boy, and an interview with Joan Jett. 

Paddy Cosgrave, the Irish entrepreneur who runs the annual Web Summit and Collision conferences, debuted “Collision at Home” this past week. He says more than 32,000 people signed up, with U.S. attendees paying $183 each. Collision’s platform aimed to bring a live feel to the event. It included a speed-networking feature that paired attendees for three minutes of random chat, and at least four simultaneous events. 

As I spoke with Cosgrave, the former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci was on one virtual stage and LL Cool J was on another. Cosgrave is still working on Web Summit, scheduled for December in Lisbon where he had once been expecting 100,000 people, but he concedes a digital event is now more likely.

For now, tech events firm Techonomy is still planning its next big event for November at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif., but CEO Josh Kampel is trying to be realistic. 

“So many things have to happen to successfully have a live event again,” he says. “Will the speakers want to go to a conference? Will their companies even let them? …Will people want to fly in? And how will you do catering? Will everyone be behind plastic?” 

Difficult questions, with no easy answers. 

Write to Eric J. Savitz at eric.savitz@barrons.com

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