CES is returning to Vegas. Will the tech world follow?

Expect a smaller show with some major absences, vaccine passes and a digital component.

People at CES conference

The first in-person CES since the beginning of the pandemic is likely going to look very different.

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

This time of year, consumer electronics companies tend to be busy making plans for CES, the annual industry gathering that in pre-pandemic times drew up to 180,000 people to Las Vegas every January. But with just a few weeks left before the show once again opens its doors after an all-virtual event in 2021, the industry’s CES outreach has gotten a lot less aggressive. Instead of invites to extravagant after-show parties, lots of emails instead ask just one question: “Are you going?”

For many, the answer still seems to be up in the air.

When veteran digital media executive Greg Kahn recently polled his LinkedIn network about CES plans, only 19% of around 600 respondents firmly committed to attending the show. Another 17% said they were “probably” going, while 23% leaned toward not going. A whopping 41% had already made up their mind and said they were “definitely out.”

“I was a little surprised” about the many naysayers, Kahn confessed in a conversation with Protocol. Far from being an authoritative survey, the informal poll nonetheless seems to reflect a common hesitance to commit to a mass gathering amid a likely COVID-19 winter surge. Further complicating the situation is the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, and the resulting global travel restrictions as countries rush to halt its spread.

CES SVP Karen Chupka told journalists earlier this month that “tens of thousands of attendees” had registered for the show thus far, while the number of companies signed up as exhibitors was “over 1,700.” In mid-November 2019, CTA had already signed up 4,500 exhibitors.

“Let’s be honest: It will have a smaller footprint, and it will be fewer people,” said CTA President Gary Shapiro during the same press event. “COVID is keeping some people home. We recognize it’s a different year, and the show will look different.” Shapiro tried to make light of the situation by billing it as an opportunity for a more focused event: “We’ll have wider aisles … It won’t feel as crowded,” he said.

Potential attendees may still be wavering, but for exhibitors, the clock is ticking, if it hasn’t run out already. Putting together a major floor presence can take months, and floor plans for bigger booths had to be submitted for approval by the end of October.

Some notable companies have already decided against going. Ford, whose previous CEO, Jim Hackett, held the CES opening keynote in 2018, will be sitting this show out, according to a spokesperson. GoPro, which has been a staple at CES for over a decade, will be skipping the show as well. Haier and its GE Appliances subsidiary, which had a 12,450-square-foot booth complete with model kitchens in 2020, also won’t be there. Sharp won’t have a booth but is “participating in other ways,” according to a spokesperson.

Plenty of other companies are going but adjusted their plans to account for a possibly much lighter attendance. Roku, for instance, will be at the show, but with a smaller presence. Samsung will once again have a big booth to show off its latest TVs. However, a traditional pre-keynote evening event for journalists is being held virtually instead.

There will also likely be a lot fewer companies from China, as the country still has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers returning from abroad. Shapiro acknowledged that this had led to a “major fall-off.” CTA executives still expect that 30% of the show’s audience will come from abroad, which would be roughly in line with prior years, but those estimates were made before news of the omicron variant emerged. Since then, some countries have already closed their borders on international travelers, while others, including Israel, are following China’s example to institute mandatory quarantine.

CTA is requiring all attendees to show proof of vaccination upon entering show facilities, and shuttle bus drivers may take a closer look at people’s lanyards than in prior years to make sure that only vaccinated attendees are making use of the service. The group plans to issue additional details on mask requirements and digital vaccine passes for international attendees in the coming weeks.

The biggest challenge for attendees and exhibitors alike will be the sprawling nature of CES. In addition to officially sanctioned programming, the show regularly attracts numerous independent events. Despite rules requiring them not to, companies do at times staff their suites with personnel not registered for show-floor access, and as such, they’re not subject to the show’s vaccine requirements. And then there are the countless parties, formal and informal.

Other conferences and trade shows have at times struggled to keep attendees safe, even with vaccine mandates in place. Augmented World Expo sent all attendees a note about a COVID-positive attendee mere hours after the show was over. NFT NYC, which included a lot of partying, led to so many COVID-19 cases that some attendees have since called it a super-spreader event. The annual broadcaster event, IBC, scheduled to be held in Amsterdam next month, had to be canceled due to a new surge of infections in Europe.

To cater to people cautious about possible exposure to the virus, CES is once again putting on a virtual show as well, for which industry insiders can register starting Dec. 9. Every CES press conference and keynote will be streamed, and exhibitors will have an online presence that will remain available throughout January. That virtual component is likely going to be a part of future iterations of the show as well, even after the worst of the pandemic is over.

“The technologies are still at their infancy stages, so we will learn more each year and change it each year, but I think there will always be some digital component to CES,” Chupka said.

Kahn expects the same thing. “Many companies have successfully been doing virtual shows,” he said, a trend he expects to continue as companies move from in-person panels to year-round programming. At the same time, he expects CES to rebound. Sure, the show will be smaller, but plenty of people in the industry stlil value in-person interaction, he said.

“I’m definitely going,” Kahn said.

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