IFA 2020: What it's like to attend a 'special edition' tech expo in the era of social distancing

IFA 2020
(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

Tech is back, but not as we know it. Europe’s most prestigious tech fair, the Internationale Funkausstellung – best known as IFA – has been taking place in Berlin since 1924, and its organisers weren’t going to let a global pandemic get in the way of new gadgets.

It regularly hosts around 2,000 exhibitors and last year it saw 245,000 visitors. This year, as a result of Covid-19, the IFA 2020 Special Edition running from September 3-5 2020, has been down to about 200 exhibitors and just 4,000 invited retailers, journalists and industry analysts.

Is everyone wearing masks?

Almost everyone – although I did notice a trend for people to take off their masks when talking to one another, which makes zero sense. Officially, masks must be worn at all times, the only exception being if you’re in a cordoned-off seating area in the catering hall. In that space you’ll have a member of staff approach before you’ve even had a mouthful, contact-tracing form in hand for you to fill in, sporting an apologetic look on their face. Each exhibitor is required to do the same, although only one of 50 I visited actually followed through.

Signs to encourage hand-washing are up everywhere, along with plenty of händedesinfektionsmittel on tap, and we’re all supposed to keep 1.5m from each other – although in practice the latter is near-impossible.

IFA 2020

(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

How big is the IFA 2020 Special Edition?

IFA 2020 is tiny. The event spans four huge halls of the city’s Messe Berlin venue: two filled with chairs and big screens for press conferences (which are mostly being delivered virtually), one for catering, and one containing both a press room and a smattering of brands displaying their wares.

Fitbit, Huawei (and sister-brand Honor) and TP-Link have a physical presence… and aside from some small boutique brands, that’s about it.

Perhaps the biggest shock is that aside from the panels in the press conference halls, there isn’t a single big flat TV being exhibited in the entire venue.

IFA 2020

(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

What is it like to report from?

IFA 2020 lacks sparkle, but the lack of people makes it a reporter’s dream. The press room – usually a scrum – resembles a top airline’s business-class lounge; it’s all socially distanced tables, private space and super-fast Wi-Fi. I regularly walk 30,000 steps when reporting from IFA, and getting around is intensely annoying. Yesterday, I walked just 7,000 steps.

What’s actually happening at IFA 2020 Special Edition?

There are four events: the IFA Global Press Conference for established brands; IFA NEXT meets IFA SHIFT Mobility for startups; IFA Global Markets for retailers sourcing products; and IFA Business, Retail and Meeting Lounges for industry types to network.

What are the press conferences like?

Not at all the experience of previous years. Usually, IFA press conferences are a media scrum, with people standing everywhere and almost zero chance of capturing any usable photos. This year, it was possible to walk in at any time and get a socially distanced seat at the front. Trouble is, it was just a room full (okay, 10% full) of people watching mostly pre-recorded reels. So despite the seven giant screens, the production desk was a man on a laptop at the rear of the room.

As such, while the likes of LG, TCL and Qualcomm are officially at the show, physically, they’re not – not a single member of staff and not a single product. The only exception was Huawei.

IFA 2020

(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

What is IFA NEXT?

IFA 2020’s saving grace has been its IFA NEXT section. Held alongside the main venue in the CityCube, which is normally where you’d find Samsung come IFA, it contains about 50 startups and small brands. IFA NEXT is always a zone at IFA, and it’s usually the best place to be if you’re after new and exciting gadgets, but it’s been pivotal to the 2020 event.

How are the organizers spinning it?

They’re being incredibly honest. The word is that they told all the exhibitors to expect few visitors, especially given that 'flight corridors' are currently opening and closing in Europe at short notice.

There was a little welcome gallows humour: Jens Heithecker, IFA executive director, walked onto the stage early on Thursday to “You’ll never walk alone”, peeling off his mask and talking to the socially distanced journalists about looking beyond the pandemic.

IFA 2020

(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

“Nothing beats the personal connection,” he said. “This is why having IFA 2020 as a real-life event is such an important sign. There is a normal ahead, and now it is up to industry, retailers, media and consumers to build and shape the 'normal' that is going to emerge.”

However, amid the uttering of cliches such as “these unprecedented times” and “due to the current situation” at the IFA Global Press Conference, there was some interesting analysis about tech trends. The sector declined by only a fraction compared to many industries as working from home fuelled a trend to buy desktops, laptops, monitors and accessories galore.

Besides, Christmas is fast approaching, and is a time where most consumer technology is sold. There’s no time to waste.

What is the IFA Xtended Space?

Most of the reports you’ll read 'from Berlin' are nothing of the sort. A lot is taking place on the IFA Xtended Space – a virtual event hosting live streams from the press conference – with very few new products being unveiled.

However, if IFA 2020 as an event is sanitized to the hilt, you can bet that the virtual 'IFA Xtended Space' being broadcast to the world is, too – corporate, scripted and branded.

How is Germany coping with coronavirus?

Relatively speaking, it’s doing OK. However, daily infection numbers in Germany have risen to levels not seen since the end of April, when the country had suffered around 9,200 deaths since the outbreak. After a “day of freedom” protest against corona measures in Berlin in early August, there was another march by Covid deniers and anti-vaxxers just days before IFA 2020, despite there being a ban on gatherings over 500 in Germany until the end of 2020.

Masks must be worn in closed public spaces and on public transport, with those who don’t risking a fine of €50 ($59 / £45 / AU$81).

IFA 2020

(Image credit: Jamie Carter)

Was IFA 2020 worth the hassle?

Obviously, if an outbreak ensues afterwards, then no – but purely as an event I believe IFA’s ‘Special Edition’ was a success. It did feel a touch early for the tech industry to get back to normal – particularly when viewed from North America, I imagine – but it wasn’t a difficult show to attend. With plenty of space, no jostling or queuing, and plenty of new innovations on display, IFA 2020 was an unexpected event, a highly memorable event and, hopefully, an entirely unique experience.

IFA 2020 is Europe's biggest tech show (although much smaller this year due to global restrictions), and TechRadar will bring you all the breaking news and first impressions of new TVs, wearables and other devices as they're announced.

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and Space.com. He also edits two of his own websites, TravGear.com and WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),