What it’s really like on the ground at CES for PR pros

Tandem Marketing Communications managing director Ian Twinn says very sparse crowds and lack of major media presence is making for an unprecedentedly challenging show.

What’s it like generally at CES this year?  

Well, it's obviously very different from previous years. This is my 18th year at CES and everywhere is noticeably quiet, both the traffic and the actual size of the halls. Vegas in general, really. 

CES is claiming they're at about 40% capacity with registrants, but I doubt that claim. I think it's around 20%. There are slightly more people here than I expected but much fewer exhibitors. The exhibition halls are very condensed and they're not using South Hall at all, where there would usually be about 1,000 exhibitors just in that one hall. 

There are a lot of lounge spaces and they've dressed it to hide the sparseness but it's much more down than previous years.

How would you describe the campaigns in person with a toned-down crowd? 

We are not really seeing any. Normally there’d be things that are taking place in and around the conference centers, but we're not seeing any of that on the promotional side of things at all because most of the big brands that would do that are not here. 

I [also] haven't seen a lot of parties this year. And the coverage has been down, I think.

Why do you think that is? 

Normally we would start CES in earnest in October and have our client list mid-October to start outreach in November, but that really didn't happen this year. Even the clients that were planning to go were still [debating it] right up until around Thanksgiving week. 

The other thing that was problematic was the way the CES [schedule] landed this year. The [first] press event started on January 3, which is a Sunday after New Year’s. So there really was a collapsed timeline before we were under all of this pressure. It [limited] our ability to talk, pitch press and answer questions because of the Christmas break in [between].

The other factor is that [PR people on the ground] didn't even really know where our booths were going to be until the week before CES because they kept reconfiguring the halls. It's hard to arrange meetings if you don't know where you are. And [with Omicron causing cancellations] now, all of the reporters that should be writing in this timeframe are reorganizing their own logistics and turning everything into virtual meetings. 

How has it changed your earned media strategy?

My sense of this is that CES coverage, which typically is dominated by CES week, will continue across January. Our strategy hasn't changed too much because we don't rely on in-person meetings to generate coverage. We do a lot of the work before that. But we would have met 20 to 40 reporters over the course of a week at CES, and we’ve obviously had to change that to digital. 

We also did much more explanatory videos for some of our clients, like webinars and video packages. The broadcast strategy [has suffered] because none of the major news networks were here. Usually, CNBC, CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC would [be here]. Only Fox News is here this year.  

I think [for the] network strategy, we're going to have to do a lot of trends out of CES, so we'll be pitching media about what we saw at CES rather than what's being unveiled at CES.

How many reporters, editors or producers did you meet with in person? How did that number change in recent weeks?

Normally we’d meet with 20 to 40 reporters. This year, I’d say we met with about half that, and they're not the big outlets. Editor showcases are where we get the majority of our meetings but it's been hard to quantify because no one is booking time slots or giving specific times to show up.  

How is doing virtual meetings working out while you're at a physical event? 

That's also been another logistical problem because now we've been doing a lot of the virtual meetings with people who are not all on the same time zones. And obviously when you’re conducting a zoom call, you need to be in some kind of quiet area with good internet connection, which doesn't happen on the show floor. 

 So we've had to have one person back at base in the hotel room and our New York people, who didn't come out in person, staff the virtual meetings.

What's your sense on how safe people feel at CES?

To the [Consumer Technology Association’s] credit, this has been done well. Everybody's in a mask. We were given tests and most people are testing every day. They’ve organized for international travelers to get tested to get back on the plane. And we haven't had any cases, which is good. 

Because of the attendance and density of booths, the ability to distance is easier. 

Do you think you are getting the same value that you thought you would by being on the ground?

No, I would say not. There is definitely a diminished value. I wouldn't say that there's no value, but it's certainly diminished, and it disproportionately affects smaller clients.

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