By Doug Mohney
Held last week in Las Vegas, CES 2022 had around 40,000 attendees. Pre-COVID attendance in 2020 was 171,000, leading the media who didn’t attend to claim it was a “ghost town.” A 76% drop in attendance is a significant drop but given the current public health environment, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) can call this year’s turn-out, a small win.
CES is the largest tech conference to take place since the start of the pandemic and highest-attended during the current Omicron wave, making it sought out among companies and interested parties. A quick glance through social media and event calendars shows most events scheduled for the first quarter of this year either going all-virtual, canceling or shifting to later dates. The few organizers who are determined to conduct a live event in February and March are typically requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for admittance, masking and providing on-site test options. MWC Barcelona in February, if it doesn’t go all virtual, will require attendees to wear the EU equivalent of N-95 masks and provide proof of vaccination.
What did CES 2022 look like?
Even with reductions of overall show space due to fewer exhibitors, last-minute withdraws by name-brand companies created obvious voids on the floor that were filled with chairs, tables and carpet. LG’s decision to transform its mammoth Central Hall footprint into a spartan “Virtual Tour” didn’t show organizers any favors with its stark wooden flooring.
I’ve attended around a dozen or so CES shows over the years. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better if you have to fight through lines and wait for basic services. As more exhibitors and attendees rolled into Vegas each January, the city slowed down accordingly and not in a good way. Moving from point A to point B became a challenge, from waiting a few minutes for a cab, to waiting in a 30–40 minute line for a cab. Las Vegas, for all its charms, doesn’t do well when an extra 170,000 people parachute in for the week, even if events are spread out across multiple locations in the city.
While the stress of COVID permeated the air, the stress of travel evaporated this year. CES 2022 didn’t have a crush of crowds jamming the aisles in most exhibit spaces, so it was easy to walk from booth to booth. Bus transportation between hotels and venues didn’t require a 10-30 minute wait in line before boarding and traffic moved freely on the streets.
Big fish in a little pond
Triggered by Omicron, last-minute withdraws by name-brand companies and a block of U.S. media cast a cloud over CES 2022, which was already expecting lower turnout due to existing health safety concerns and a variety of national quarantine policies. The silver lining to companies that stayed the course is that they received more in-depth attention from the media in attendance, around 1,800 according to CTA.
The best snapshots of this benefit are John Deere and Sierra Space Corporation. Both companies had custom-built spaces in the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) parking lot in front of Central Hall. At a pre-COVID CES, the lot would be full of temporary buildings, but the only neighbors the two had were an electric semi-truck company, Damon Motorcycle and a few smaller firms.
Attendees arriving at the LVCC on the monorail or bus would see the John Deere and Sierra booths plus the smaller brands next to them. Their presence wasn’t obscured by the usual dozen plus exhibitors that setup there, like Google and NXP – the two had the entire stage (well, parking lot) without distractions.
This exclusivity benefit extended to media coverage as well. With fewer attendees swarming the John Deere booth, I was able to slip in and get 30 minutes of quality time talking to Deere’s on-site subject matter experts in autonomous tractors and emerging technologies. It was a more relaxed discussion because I didn’t have to run from meeting to meeting, trying to cram in as many booths as possible and not get distracted by big shiny objects along the way.
CES 2022: Unique or…?
COVID has introduced a significant wildcard to in-person conferences, with the Omicron surge the latest surprise. In the U.S., the mid-January mood seems to be postponing larger events to later in the second quarter or going completely virtual. Larger international events such as Mobile World Congress on February 28-March 3 are putting up a brave face so far, but a lot can happen in the next four to six weeks.
CES 2022’s win is bringing together 40,000 attendees in-person, including a third from overseas, with the uncertainty of Omicron hanging about. If there is no active COVID wave this time next year, the next question for exhibitors and attendees alike becomes “Do I really need to go in person?” Virtual is an alternative, but it’s not a clean substitute and doesn’t provide the spontaneous networking.
However, I wouldn’t expect future CES shows returning to 170,000 attendees next year even with a “clear sky” free of major COVID threats. Some companies will stick with virtual because it saves money, has a low logistical footprint, and provides a tangible return on investment. It will take a couple of years to rebuild attendance and convince people that CES is a “must go” event again.