CES needs to be in person, as soon as it's safe

CES needs to be in person, as soon as it's safe
CES needs to be in person, as soon as it's safe

Dave Morgan has been attending CES for 25 years and has seen all sorts of gizmos and gadgets along the way. If you squint at photos from past shows, you might find him gawking at the curved TVs. Or he might be in the background as someone's controlling a computer through a headband sensing their thoughts.

But Wednesday, at the opening morning of 2022's show, the longtime ad industry executive and investor saw something quite out of the ordinary while getting some early exercise. The sea of up to 180,000 attendees who typically flood into Las Vegas for one of the world's largest trade shows was mostly gone.

"Early morning run on pretty empty Vegas strip," he tweeted out, before adding he's "actually looking forward to exploring the #ces floor without the crowds."

Morgan's experience of a quieter CES in Vegas is one that many people missed out on. But it wasn't just that. The sharply reduced crowds -- estimated to be less than half of the 150,000 who attended CES two years ago -- meant an even bigger obstacle for the small companies that for years have relied on buzz from the show to serendipitously turn them into breakout stars with surprise products that grab the industry's attention.

"When you're a smaller company, CES could be your biggest marketing spend," said Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead, who attended this year's CES in person. "It can be a make or break event for you."

The CES challenge illustrates another way the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend the way we work and live. Not only has the pandemic led to 9.5 million confirmed cases and 5.4 million people killed around the globe, it's also left many people wondering what a post-COVID world will be like, much less how we'll hold large-scale events like CES. 

The pandemic's uncertainty has hit everyone, whether they're working in education, finance or real estate. In the tech world, it means that small companies for which CES could be the ultimate launching pad may struggle a bit more to take off. 

In the past, companies like the VR headset startup Oculus offered demos at CES 2014, building buzz mere months before Facebook bought the company for more than $2 billion. There's also Impossible Foods, the plant-based food company that landed an agreement with fast food giant Burger King after a CES meeting.

"It's hard to do that in a digital setting," said Jean Foster, head of marketing at the Consumer Tech Association, which puts on CES. 

After last year's experiment with an all-digital show, she said surveys of attendees and media alike agreed that holding the event in person would be better. And so this year, the CTA decided to press forward with an in-person event, with the caveat that attendees must have proof of COVID vaccination and international travelers must provide a negative COVID test taken within one day prior to taking their flight. The CTA even handed out free COVID testing kits when people arrived.

As health experts have repeatedly noted, none of us has ever lived through a pandemic of this scale. That means companies are learning how to function in this environment without a clear game plan, backed by decades of business school studies and success stories.