CES Comeback Effort Stymied After Omicron Spooks Participants

Next week was meant to mark a key moment for the tech world, with executives from some of the biggest companies descending on CES in Las Vegas to hobnob, share strategies and remember what life was like before the pandemic

Attendees walk through a hall during CES 2020 in Las Vegas, in 2020.
By Mark Gurman and Ian King
December 30, 2021 | 11:54 AM
Reading time: 4 min.

Bloomberg — Next week was meant to mark a key moment for the tech world, with executives from some of the biggest companies descending on CES in Las Vegas to hobnob, share strategies and remember what life was like before the pandemic.

Instead, most of them will be attending the event remotely -- if at all. The annual gathering will soldier on in-person, but with just a diehard contingent venturing to Vegas. Companies like Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Intel Corp. scrapped plans to go, and many of the show’s presentations have shifted online. Tech news outlets also have dropped out.

CES was held virtually last January, and the hope was to bring back the good old days this time around. The massive show, with millions of square feet of exhibit space, attracted more than 170,000 people per year before the pandemic. But the rapid spread of Covid-19′s omicron variant in December, which sent global cases above 1 million a day, foiled CES’s comeback bid.

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Advanced Micro Devices Inc. was one of the latest companies to skip a trip to Las Vegas, saying Tuesday that face-to-face meetings would be held virtually “in the best interest of the health and safety of our employees, partners and communities.” Mike Sievert, chief executive officer of CES sponsor T-Mobile US Inc., canceled his keynote speech altogether.

Panasonic Corp. scaled back its plans as well this week. It will still have a few staffers onsite at the show, but its press conference will be online.

Despite the exodus, CES organizers have steadfastly defended holding an in-person show. According to the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on the event, more than 2,200 exhibitors were still committed to coming as of Wednesday. Gary Shapiro, the group’s CEO, said last week that canceling the show would hurt the smaller companies and entrepreneurs that count on the event to pitch ideas.

The conference also is enforcing health precautions, such as a vaccination requirement, masking and the use of Covid-19 tests.

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“CES will and must go on,” Shapiro said in a post on LinkedIn. “It will have many more small companies than large ones. It may have big gaps on the show floor. Certainly, it will be different from previous years. It may be messy. But innovation is messy.”

CES bills itself as the most influential tech event in the world, and the 54-year-old gathering has debuted many of the biggest electronic products -- from the VCR in 1970 to compact disc players in 1981 to Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox in 2001.

Samsung Electronics Co. used the event to launch its first 100-inch plasma TV, and the 2009 conference introduced the Palm Pre, a device touted as an iPhone killer. The iPhone survived the threat.

In the early 2010s, the conference was home to technologies like 3D TVs, new phones from Samsung, and several Android tablets that were designed to challenge Apple Inc.’s iPad. But after that period, the show’s appeal to technology giants started to cool. Microsoft stopped making major announcements in 2012 at CES, and Samsung turned its attention to the Mobile World Congress and stand-alone, Apple-style product launches. In 2020, the company used CES to introduce the Ballie robotic ball, a product that ultimately fizzled.

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More recently, CES saw a bit of a resurgence. Amazon and Google spent money on booths to tout their smart home initiatives, and major automotive companies started filling up Las Vegas convention-center halls with their future models and technologies. Even Apple, which hadn’t officially taken part in CES since 1992, showed up in 2020 for a panel about privacy. But attendance slipped from more than 184,000 in January 2017 to about 171,000 in January 2020, just before the pandemic.

Beyond product announcements, CES has been key for behind-the-scenes meetings and deals. It gives companies a chance to investigate and acquire new technologies that they may add to their product lines.

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That’s harder to do with an online panel or Zoom conference call, and virtual attendees can’t touch and feel new products.

But the conference will still serve as a showcase for buzzy new technologies, including self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence. Samsung is poised to introduce new TVs and a phone. Sony Group Corp. will usher in their latest entertainment devices, and Qualcomm Inc. will talk up advances in chips.

Executives from Intel, General Motors Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. are slated to give speeches or media presentations as well -- all of which will be available online.

CES also will highlight the technologies behind the metaverse -- a vision of interconnected online worlds that rely on virtual and augmented reality. Facebook, which changed its name to Meta Platforms Inc. earlier this year, is the biggest champion of the concept.

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Meta had planned to send people to CES, which will have exhibitor space devoted to so-called extended reality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meta didn’t take long to choose the virtual option instead. When omicron concerns began to mount last week, it was one of the first big tech companies to pull out.