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Tech extravaganza CES returns this week to Las Vegas. But how will it fare in the COVID era?

January 3, 2022, 2:00 PM UTC

Two weeks ago, CES 2022 was a far different show.

Exhibitors and some attendees were prepared to gather for the first time in two years—and mark the return of big in-person conventions. Then the Omicron variant began to spread like wildfire across the U.S.—and some of the big exhibitors changed their mind.

T-Mobile was the first to drop out, followed by Amazon, Facebook parent Meta, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and chipmaker AMD, among others.

But despite those withdrawals, the show will go on—albeit not as long as show organizers had hoped. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which hosts CES, has made it clear it plans to move forward with both an in-person and virtual version of the show, but announced on Dec. 31 that it would close the event a day earlier than planned (on Jan. 7) owing to safety concerns.

The big question is: Will anyone be there to visit those booths in person?

Crowds at the in-person version of the show were expected to be notably smaller than 2020’s 182,000 people. But many major media outlets, including Fortune, have opted not to send reporters to the show, given the high (and growing) number of COVID-19 cases. Like last year, the CTA will offer a digital version of its event, making it a hybrid. But for many people, the focus was on that live show, which was meant to serve as a test case for whether conventions, as we know them, are viable in the COVID era.

Gary Shapiro, president of the CTA, maintains they still are.

“Thousands of businesses are relying on us,” he said on a LinkedIn post. “CES is an essential business event and can make or break a year for small and midsize companies. I’ve heard from many of these companies, urging us to move forward with an in-person show…We’ve learned so much from the pandemic over the past two years—especially on the deep human need to be with other people. Gathering in person helps us to build relationships, discover and learn new things, and communicate better. Moreover, there is cause for cautious optimism. While more contagious, studies indicate the Omicron variant presents minimal risk of serious illness for vaccinated people.”

For many of those small and medium-size businesses, though, the urge to move forward with a live show could have different origins.

“If, for some reason, they can’t hold CES, [the CTA] holds your funds until the next year,” says Suki Dunham, founder and CEO of sexual wellness firm OhMiBod, which has exhibited at CES for the past 10 years, but chose not to attend this year. “For a smaller company, that’s pretty big dollars. We didn’t want to gamble on that…We also wondered how many potential customers would be sending their staff to the event given the state of things, which of course translates to the cost-benefit analysis.”

Over 2,200 exhibitors are confirmed to exhibit in person at the 2022 CES, according to the CTA. And some major companies are still planning to attend. TV manufacturers LG and Samsung plan to be there. So do Sony, Nvidia, and Ford (though General Motors will no longer attend in person). Top executives will also be on hand, with keynotes expected from Samsung CEO Jong-Hee Han and Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon, among others.

CES focuses in 2022

As always, new TVs, automotive tech (which will occupy 600,000 square feet of floor space this year), and oddball gadgets will command many of the headlines. But this year’s CES is also branching into new territory.

A food tech space will highlight everything from plant-based proteins to smart farming to sustainability. And for the first time, CES will have a dedicated area for space tech, with Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser likely to be the big draw. The space shuttle–like vehicle is designed to ferry crews to the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit destinations.

Not surprisingly, health tech will be a big focus in 2022. Formerly housed in the Venetian hotel, one of the show’s offshoot locations, it has been moved this year to the main event at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The category will include telemedicine and new technology for managing your own health. While there are certain to be companies leaning into COVID-themed and COVID-adjacent areas, traditional digital health products—from breast pumps to insulin monitoring—will be broadly represented as well.

And to emphasize the arrival of the health-tech industry, Abbott CEO Robert Ford will give a CES keynote talk.

In another sign of what’s hot, you can expect a lot of companies to talk about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital art, and the metaverse, the virtual reality playland that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently said would constitute the landscape of the future.

CES, first held over 50 years ago, has been the launchpad for many products that ultimately became blockbusters, including DVDs, VCRs, CD players, and the Xbox video game console. And considering its weight in the industry, organizers of other major trade shows planned for later this year will be watching to see how CES handles the new reality.

If CES, even in its now-reduced size, is a success—without becoming a COVID superspreader event—it could restart what is a big chunk of the Las Vegas economy. Conventions in southern Nevada, including Las Vegas, had an estimated 6.6 million attendees in 2019, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, generating $11.4 billion in economic benefits.

CES attendees will have to show proof of vaccination to get into the show and will be required to wear masks at all indoor exhibit facilities and keynotes, and in CES transportation services. In mid-December, the CTA announced in-person attendees would be provided with two COVID-19 self-tests when they pick up their show badges. Although the group has encouraged show-goers to take a test, either on site or before leaving home, no one is required to do so.

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