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CES Opens In-Person Despite Calls to Cancel

By Angela Tupper

CES is being held in person for the first time in two years, but the move is proving divisive. Critics have called for its cancelation while major exhibitors have pulled out — yet 40,000 to 60,000 visitors and over 2,200 exhibitors are voting yes with their feet.

Visitors and speakers at CES 2022 in Las Vegas

Photo credit: Consumer Technology Association

CES touts itself as “The Most Influential Tech Event in the World”, and few would argue with this claim. It is the largest technology trade show in the world, with players both big and small converging to do business and make connections with the widest pool of contacts possible. When asked about the prospect of canceling in the face of surging Omicron cases, senior director of CES communications Jamie Kaplan simply stated, “We have 2,200 companies who want to have a show. So, we are having a show.”

This number, however, is down significantly from 2020’s tally of over 4,400 exhibitors. Visitor stats show an even steeper decline: Organizers project 40,000 to 60,000 in-person attendees, as compared with over 170,000 two years ago. In other words, foot traffic is expected to be anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of pre-pandemic levels.

Even so, the number of participants is still very significant. In fact, the event wouldn't be controversial otherwise. Either a large number of participants would suffer financial losses from a last-minute cancelation, or they’d be left open to a heightened risk of transmission from in-person attendance. While IBC organizers drew criticism when they canceled their event just over a month ago, the team behind CES is now under fire for not canceling.

When tech industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang asked his Twitter followers to weigh in roughly two weeks ago, most responses were in favor of canceling, but a significant number took the opposite view. In this article, we explore both sides of the debate while sharing insights from those who’ve chosen to attend in person.

Could CES Organizers Have Planned Better?

As the job title suggests, event planning means planning ahead, and in the context of a pandemic, predictions become just as important as preparations.

The further away an event is, the harder it is to anticipate what kind of situation will apply when opening day arrives. But the closer that an event is, the harder it becomes to cancel or postpone. Although CES organizers could have theoretically anticipated that cases would rise in the winter based on past patterns, expert opinions on the matter were mixed — and the pressure to return to business as usual was high.

As long-time Las Vegas resident Julius Solaris pointed out in response to Jeremiah Owyang’s tweet, CES organizers didn’t have many options by the time late December had rolled around:

“It’s a tough one. They already started building for CES here in Vegas. The only way the event will cancel is if more exhibitors pull out. On the other hand many feel ok to go because there will be substantially less people.”

Julius Solaris, vice president of marketing strategy and events, Hopin

In fact, social distancing might be the one element of CES’s plan that is likely to go better than expected, but it might be a stretch to call that a success.

With that said, it would be hard to fault CES for insufficient health and safety planning. Measures include:

  • Vaccine requirements for entry, verified either through the CLEAR app (US citizens only), or with visual verification of documentation at check-in
  • A complimentary self-test kit for each attendee (although admittedly testing is voluntary with an honor-based system for reporting positive results)
  • First aid areas where attendees who begin experiencing symptoms can go for additional testing
  • A complimentary RT-PCR test for those returning to destinations that require them (such as Canada)
  • Socially distanced seating, improved ventilation, wider aisles on the showroom floor, and one-way traffic flow at entry and exit points

On December 31, CES also announced that it would be ending the event one day early “as an additional safety measure”. According to Owyang, this move was at least strategically wise: “CES's last day event usually has far fewer attendees, so cutting it short would reduce perceived risk as well as some event costs.”

Of course, detractors would argue that no safety measures can make a large-scale in-person event safe in the context of record-high case numbers.

Does Omicron Make In-Person Events Riskier, or Safer?

Yet another area of contention is the nature of Omicron itself: Both real-world data and multiple lab experiments suggest that the variant is significantly less severe than Delta, but also much more contagious. In other words, initial assessments of Omicron’s risk profile appear to have been accurate.

Does that mean CES made a mistake in failing to cancel CES when Omicron was first discovered in November? Once again, diametrically opposed views have emerged.

Some commenters on Owyang’s post implied that Omicron’s transmissibility makes it unstoppable with or without measures, while at least one suggested it’s so mild as to be harmless. With some doctors comparing Omicron to a seasonal cold virus, a growing number of commenters are suggesting that it’s time to learn to live with the virus.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who frame the matter as a question of life or death, with marketing strategist Matt Staub commenting, “It's a simple calculus. How many lives are we willing to trade to come see the latest even thinner TV in person?” And many experts are cautioning that even with a smaller percentage of severe cases, the sheer scale of simultaneous infections could lead to a high absolute number of hospitalizations — all while hospitals are facing staffing shortages because so many of their workers have to self-quarantine following positive Covid tests.

In Las Vegas itself, hospitalization rates appear to be holding steady despite rapidly rising cases, but it may soon reach the tipping point if the trend continues. It remains to be seen whether CES will have a noticeable impact on these numbers. This may be the first time that a large-scale event takes place in the context of such fast-spreading community transmission, both locally and in the global destinations that some international delegates might call home.

On the other hand, if initial photos from press day are anything to go by, CES may be so sparsely attended that it succeeds in its promise of low transmission risk inside the venue walls.

Why Some Exhibitors and Attendees Decided to Attend In Person

According to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the organization behind CES, attendance levels should still be high compared to most other events — particularly in the context of the pandemic. In fact, a press release dated December 31 suggests that “[i]n the last two weeks, 143 additional companies have signed up to exhibit in person.”

This statement seems to contradict media headlines about a slew of major exhibitors pulling out over the same time frame, but it may paint an important picture. Could these last-minute exhibitors be SMEs and startups, some of whom might have wanted to wait until the risk of event cancelation seemed lower?

In any case, it’s hard to imagine a large-scale exhibitor pulling together a trade show booth in two weeks. (There are even reports of long-committed exhibitors facing setbacks from pandemic-related supply chain issues.) While research on in-person exhibitors did not provide any clear verdict on this front, our interview sources did fall into this business category themselves.

An International Visitor’s Perspective

Tali Chen, a sales and marketing executive in the semiconductor industry, explained that she is attending CES as a visitor for the first time — after roughly ten years of participating as a representative of an exhibiting company. Her past employer of 14 years (an SME itself) was acquired in December, and she made the decision to attend CES as a visitor this past Friday. She and some colleagues are planning their own business venture, and CES offered a pivotal opportunity to reconnect with established contacts and expand their new network:

“Despite all the cancelations, there are 2,200 exhibitors. A lot of my contacts, partners, and colleagues are going. Bringing everyone together in one place has so much value. Virtual meetings are not as efficient as talking to people face to face. And at least in our industry, we need to see the demo.”

Tali Chen, sales and marketing leader

Chen had to go through several hoops to make it to the event, including the need to secure a special travel permit from her home country of Israel. Flights were difficult to arrange, and partly because of uncertainty around domestic travel rules in the US, she decided to take a direct flight to LA and then drive to Las Vegas.

An Exhibitor’s Perspective

Pamela Earle, founder of tech startup 3DhappyAR, was just as adamant about the importance of attending in person. Her company was invited to launch its new product at CES, and she believes that the in-person experience is essential for demonstrating how her patent-pending, periodically renewable AR “gifts” work:

“It is first to market and important for us to share it in person for this reason. By being in person, it’s not as easy for someone to click out of a demo as it is online... Nothing beats showing your product in person, especially a retail product that uses a device to display Augmented Reality.”

Pamela Earle, founder of 3DhappyAR

For lesser-known companies, the chance of being discovered on the show floor may hold more appeal than it does for big-name brands that already have a wide reach.

Chen, however, pointed out that the heavy hitters are still an essential part of this equation. “In-person attendance is probably more important for small and mid-sized enterprises, but a big part of the incentive is to create dialogue with the bigger players,” she explained. “If in the future, the bigger companies continue to  pull out, I'm not sure that it will bring the desired ROI.”

While it remains to be seen whether this year’s CES will fulfill the promise set by past events, it is clear that SMEs and startups depend on successful in-person trade shows to gain exposure.

IN CONCLUSION

CES has always been one of the most attention-grabbing events of the year, and this year is no exception — although possibly not for the best reasons. CES 2022 happened to fall at a time when the pandemic is dividing people even further than months past. Some are thankful that CES is finally happening in person again after a two-year hiatus, while others feel that a large-scale gathering is reckless in the context of rising Omicron cases.

Will “The Most Influential Tech Event in the World” also influence industry attitudes towards in-person attendance? Post-event reports might help to shed light on whether opinions will be swayed in one direction or another, or simply become more polarized.

about the author

Angela Tupper
Angela Tupper is the deputy editor for EventMB, a branch of the Skift media company. She has been reporting on both event industry news and event technology for close to three years. Angela’s background includes a combination of writing, editing, marketing, and teaching roles, as well as hands-on experience with association events. With an interest in all topics related to events, she is keen to learn more from industry professionals. She currently calls Montreal, Canada, her home city.
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