I’m one week away from the relief of full vaccination, give or take the two-week waiting period that follows.

One week away from a safety net; one week away from normal, whatever that means now. Because to me, normal means something different than it did 14 months ago.

It’s easy to let the mind wander to a not-too-distant future when we can, in many ways, get back to normal. (Small) dinner parties? (Intimate outdoor) concerts? Handshakes and hugs (with a small group of people I trust)? Massive conferences with 300,000+ attendees? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What does normal look like? For the organizers of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, normal is a return to Las Vegas for an in-person show. This news hit me differently this week than it would have a year ago ahead of what turned out to be a fully virtual (and rightly so) show. I missed the in-person experience this year; I’m hopeful that with a nine-month on-ramp, a return to Las Vegas can be effective, professionally satisfying, and safe. I am excited about experiencing CES in-person again. But do I want to see the show return in its normal state? Absolutely not.

According to the CTA, more than 1,000 brands have confirmed their interest in returning to an in-person CES experience in 2022. That’s a remarkable vote of confidence in humanity’s ability to keep COVID-19 and its assorted variants under control in most parts of the world. I tend to agree that a return to Las Vegas will be a welcomed addition to the winter tech calendar, but for participating brands, there are necessary adaptations to the physical experience that will need to be accounted for during the “normal” CES of the future. In truth, as events try to reestablish themselves on the calendar, a few new considerations will become normal as well. A few that are top of mind for me as I counsel brands making the leap back into in-person events and experiences include:

  • Safety first. Let’s assume for a moment, through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses, that COVID-19 is a fading memory by January 2022 – a dying scourge that makes us shudder but no longer causes paralyzing anxiety. Even if that’s the case, behaviors have changed, and exhibitors must adapt. Booth design must adjust to our changing priorities. That means no more human traffic jams, no enclosed spaces, and accommodations for proper spacing between people inside a highly congested event. And that’s just the start.
  • Putting attendees at ease. Do your booth staffers wear masks while briefing visitors about your brand? Do you require masks upon entry to a booth? Do you take temperatures at the proverbial door? How do you handle visitors who don’t comply with protocols? There are many considerations, and the fog is thick. Through it all, brands must create a welcoming environment that achieves communications goals while also ensuring guests don’t leave wondering whether they just walked through a mini super-spreader experience.
  • Fearless Hands-on / sensory demos. Where the virtual CES fell short was the absence of the hands-on experience. That’s where brands shine at CES: when they’re able to give people an immersive experience with new products and innovations. Of course, that’s next to impossible in a remote event and so the return to Las Vegas should also mean a return to the best experiences CES has to offer. However, these demos must be informed by shifting behaviors caused by the events of the past 14+ months: Brands that deliver winning hands-on demos will be the ones who focus on touchless, hygiene-first experiences. Technology has reached a point where hands shouldn’t be required to experience the magic of innovation. In theory, a CES attendee should be able to walk the entire floor, experience every demo, and never touch a thing.
  • Learn from CES 2021. The virtual CES was always going to pale in comparison to past in-person shows. Banging away at a keyboard, staring at a screen… it was never going to measure up. However, CTA did a lot of things right and I’d love to see brands push the organizers to keep some of the more effective elements of the virtual show. For example, landing pages for exhibitors to post content served as a worthy build on the CES experience – and one that provided media with excellent resources to pull from for their coverage plans. Further, brands that executed virtual booth tours drove better, more in-depth coverage. I’d like to see this attention to content production and media accommodation return in 2022.

We’re getting back to normal, but how we define normal is changing. Truly, it must change. From broader acceptance of remote work to a heightened awareness and respect for personal space, it’ll be a fascinating journey – one that doesn’t take us back to where we once were, but to somewhere else entirely. And when we get there, we’ll realize this “new normal,” though shaped by crisis and a year of fear, isn’t all that bad.