In June, the CTA announced that CES 2021 would go forward in-person. The event was set to have slipped under the wire — having narrowly avoided a COVID-19-related shutdown two years in a row. A month later, however, its organizers reversed course, announcing the January show was going virtual. Disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising.
The past five months have seen one in-person show cancellation after another, from MWC to E3, from WWDC to Computex to our own Disrupt, which is going online-only for the first time. One major consumer electronics trade show, on the other hand, has long planned to buck that trend. On September 3, IFA will kick off in-person in Berlin. Though this year’s event will look dramatically different.
“Usually, we have more than 40 halls serving IFA. This year, at the moment, we have two halls for the press conference with the stages, one exhibition hall, one press center hall and one hall for IFA Next and Shift Mobility,” the organization’s executive director Jens Heithecker explains on the phone from Germany. “We will have around 170-180 exhibitors, compared to 2,300 last year.”
Heithecker doesn’t mask the melancholy in his voice when discussing this year’s version of the show. “To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” he says. “This year for me, the air’s the same, but whenever I see the halls, the area of our exhibition site, it’s empty, more or less.”
I’ve attended IFA several times over the years, and have always been struck by the organizational chaos. Every tech trade show has some element of this, of course, but IFA opens itself up the public, filling the maze like halls of the Messe Berlin convention center with a peculiar mix of industry professionals and local families with small children. It’s alternately amusing and maddening, depending on how much time you give yourself to get from point A to point B.
This year’s show has been designated IFA 2020 Special Edition. It’s essentially a nice way of noting that the show will be significantly smaller than in years past. Heithecker notes that some 1,100 members of the press have registered for the show, all from a limited invite list. I was on the invite list as well, but, like many, simply opted not to go. Frankly, the idea of flying to German to stand inside an event hall with exhibitors and fellow journalists sounds far less appealing than following along from home.
I’m sure my own sense of safety is colored by my home country’s less-than-ideal handling of the pandemic. But with 24.5 million global cases and 833,000 deaths to date from the virus, there’s still cause for concern, as numbers continue to rise around the globe. Germany has, of course, largely done well in its own handling of the novel coronavirus, but there’s cause for concern even there. With numbers rising, the country has put reopening plans on pause while other European countries like Norway have added German travelers to a quarantine list.
“By end of March, we started to create our statistics on our own, to understand the situation a better way than in the public media only,” says Heithecker. “The rising number in Germany — at least in the northern part of Germany — is created mainly by the double number of tested people. This means the ratio of positively tested people is the same like before. So we will find more people by the situation, the general situation is not going worse in the northern part. We have more tested because the German government is fearing, at the moment, all the people coming back from their holidays in the south, especially, in the south of Europe. That’s the main reason at the moment that we are following so close all the figures every day.”
The nature of the limited guest list means that social distancing will be significantly easier for attendees to practice than they have been in past years, when members of the press have been elbowing small children out of the way in order to get a good show of the latest ASUS gaming laptop. Of course, simply having more space doesn’t necessarily mean that guests will keep to the mask and social distance requirements (1.5 meters) that IFA posts.
“We have so many additional people watching out for our attendees, that they will wear masks, that they will keep the distances,” Heithecker explains. He adds that attendees will be removed from the premises for refusing to adhere to such social safety rules, but that such a move, understandably, is a last resort.
The organization notably pulled the plug on the Global Markets portion of the show, citing “persistent travel restrictions prevent Asian companies from joining the live event.” The event, launched in 2016 for OEMs/ODMs, retailers and distributors, drew a significant portion of exhibitions and attendees from Asian countries. In late June, Samsung announced that it would be pulling out of the show, opting instead for its own Unpacked event just ahead of IFA.
Heithecker believes that Samsung’s decision was based on word from the hardware giant’s U.K. offices. “Two months, three months ago, they couldn’t imagine that any journalist would attend IFA,” he tells TechCrunch. “And even if you told them, ‘Hey, we have all the registrations already, they will come,’ they didn’t believe.”
He adds that he thinks the company is essentially riding the show’s presence to add views, but that Samsung will ultimately regret not directly taking part in the show. “Samsung is doing the press conference in front of this year’s IFA, using the attention we create for the industry, for new products, using the power, the activity of IFA as well, even if they’re not inside our show,” Heithecker says. “We create this and we will bring the proof that whoever is attending or using our new platform, even for online presentations, will see a bigger impact and much more viewers and much more investment than if you do it on your own.”