Christmas weekend brought the cat-and-mouse game of ‘will there or won’t there’ be a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to a crescendo. Organizers of CES, which had 180,000 attendees in 2019, have offered health assurances and the ultimate trade show giveaway—free COVID tests.
Yet thanks to the raging Omicron COVID-19 variant, exhibitors and attendees alike are cancelling plans to travel to Las Vegas, if they can even fly there. The show is soon; CES media days are January 3 and 4, with the show running Jan. 5-8, 2022.
It’s a game of chicken where stakes are high. Millions of dollars in exhibitor fees, salaries, hotel and airline bookings, restaurants, gambling revenues and much more are on the line. Previous CES shows have dumped over $200 million in Las Vegas coffers. Technical innovation, marketing and cross-pollination of ideas and products will all be hampered by another year without face-to-face contact.
“We are moving forward with the in-person show,” a media spokesperson for the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES, said. “We have tens of thousands of attendees registered and over 2200 companies confirmed to participate in person at CES 2022 in Las Vegas. CTA is working closely with health experts in Nevada who have encouraged us to move forward with the event.”
CES supplied a comment by one of those experts, Tony Slonim, MD, DrPH, FACHE, President & CEO of Renown Health in Reno, NV. “We are now more prepared than ever to keep people safe, which is the top priority for CES. I am impressed that the Consumer Technology Association, our hotels, the LAS VEGAS conference venues and the City of Las Vegas have worked diligently to put every contemporary safety practice in place to ensure a healthy and successful in-person meeting this year.”
The show is a playground for attendees. There is also always something interesting for journalists, from the constant “whose is bigger” (TVs) to tech dreams that come true (smart phones and self-driving vehicles) and others that we are still waiting for, like flying cars.
CES previously had an estimated economic impact of $283 million on the Las Vegas economy. That money went not only to hotels, entertainment venues and restaurants, but also to bartenders, blackjack dealers, rideshare drivers, hotel workers, dancers, and event planners.
So, while many want CES 2022 to happen, troubling questions remain. If CES continues as planned and delegates become ill, is there sufficient hospital space in Las Vegas for them without displacing residents? Is there a chance that the show becomes a super-spreader event? What is the cost of the reputational damage to the show, the tech industry and to Las Vegas if it is the cause of a wave of infections or, G-d forbid, deaths?
As I write this on Christmas Eve, exhibitors like major computer maker Lenovo, T-Mobile, Amazon, GM, Google, Meta, AT&T, and others have announced they will cut on-site participation and go virtual. T-Mobile CEO Mike Siewart said he would not do his scheduled keynote as the company would be “prioritizing the safety of our team” by limiting attendance.
Leading tech media groups such as TechRadar say “we won’t be covering CES 2022 in person, out of concern for the health and wellbeing of our journalists.” As public relations maven Molly Mulloy @prmolly put it on Twitter, “So @CNETNews, @TechCrunch, @verge, @techradar, @tomsguide, @MKBHD, @IGN all virtual for #ces2022. How long will it take @CTATech to call it?”
Meanwhile, prices on Las Vegas hotel room are actually dropping for the show period. Entrepreneurs betting everything on the show would once stay four to a room to beat high CES prices. But during CES 2022, Hotels.com is advertising 30% off Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, 25% off the Venetian or Palazzo, 10% off the Sahara ($91!), 25% off the brand-new Las Vegas Hilton at Resorts World, 31% off Treasure Island, 20% off Caesar’s Palace.
Until 2020, I used to joke, based on 25 years of attendance, that “CES is a nexus of disease from around the world.” The joke (if it was one) was that people going to CES would fly in on crowded planes from all over the world, then march around crowded exhibition halls, dine and gamble while breathing on one another.
I stopped making that joke after I attended the last CES along with 170,000 others. That show ran from January 7 to 10, 2020. Already, a mysterious virus had been reported in China. A day after the show ended, China reported its first virus death. By the end of the month, the first novel coronavirus case was reported in the U.S.
CES 2021 was cancelled (or technically, went ‘all-virtual) in July of 2020 as COVID-19 raged. But as of this writing, CES 2022, starting in less than two weeks, is still on as an in-person show with a virtual component.
Am I going? I am debating. I like the show and enjoy seeing friends and writing about new products. And for me, any excuse to go to Las Vegas is a good one.
If I go, I could pick up some work as media organizations bail. And as a writer, covering the kick-off of a third plague year in Las Vegas would be an amazing scene.
But I am not a brave first responder or front-line worker. I am a journalist covering new products and trends.
Do I need to travel and risk illness to see a bunch of gadgets? At least if I caught Omicron at home, I could rest in my own bed and watch my own TV. If I do go, my wife has told me to pick out a bedroom to quarantine in when I return.