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What CES 2022 taught us about the future of trade shows

January 8, 2022, 4:00 PM UTC

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wound to a close on Friday, a day earlier than initially planned, but to hear some who braved the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) this year, it was perhaps a day or two too late.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which organizes CES, will unquestionably hail it as a success and tout the benefits of face-to-face interaction despite the pandemic. And, in many ways, it’s hard to argue against that. After nearly two years of working at home, there are definitely advantages to in-person meetings (though whether those outweigh the risks is a larger question).

We won’t immediately know whether CES 2022 was a superspreader event for COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. If someone did get the virus while there, did they pick it up on the show floor, at a restaurant, walking through a casino, or as a result of their own impatience when it came to waiting for a less crowded elevator? It’s impossible to say.

But CES 2022 did provide some lessons about the viability of large trade shows in the current world.

First and foremost, while the sponsors of these events are eager to bring them back, the attendees are a lot less certain. In the months leading up to CES, and as Omicron cases rose in recent weeks, a number of big-name companies pulled out of the show. And most mainstream media outlets including Fortune opted not to send people in person owing to the risk.

The CTA says over 40,000 people attended the show in person. That’s about a quarter of the total of the 2020 show. People who attended the show say finding a cab (usually the most challenging thing to do near the Venetian or the main convention center) was effortless and the LVCC’s Central Hall, which is usually a bustling logjam of people, was largely empty. And South Korean electronics maker LG, which usually offers a cavernous tunnel of high-end TVs, opted instead for a virtual event on the show floor, with none of the company’s products present.

Other entertainment-focused trade shows quickly took note. E3, the video game industry’s annual convention, typically held in June, canceled its in-person event for the third year in a row on Thursday.

CES could also be a turning point for small companies and trade shows. While the CTA will point to the large number of smaller exhibitors that stuck with CES this year, it’s unlikely to mention that had those companies pulled out, they would likely have lost the significant amount of money they had already paid to attend.

A small booth at CES costs companies $10,000 to $15,000. Other major trade shows are in that same neighborhood. If there’s not a sizable amount of foot traffic and substantial numbers of customers or media attending these shows, it’s valid to ask if it’s worth it for entrepreneurs to participate.

That hesitation could extend to larger companies as well. With two years of virtual trade shows under their belt, corporations are now able to gauge the effectiveness of a virtual show against an in-person one and do a thorough cost-to-benefit analysis. Do they get as much exposure and buyer interest from an online presentation as they do by attending physically? And if not, do the savings on booth space and travel costs for staff on site mitigate that?

Trade shows like CES have an in-person energy that’s undeniable and can’t be duplicated online. Seeing something in person is always more impressive than watching a video. But a company with a really unique idea or product doesn’t necessarily need the fawning crowds’ oohing and aahing to get the exposure it’s seeking. (Look no further than BMW’s color-changing car, which has become a viral sensation on social media.)

Trade shows certainly aren’t going away, but CES 2022 taught us that there’s no reason to sprint back to what they used to be either.

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