Startups and other tech company leaders don’t want to miss out on face-to-face networking and seeing new products live and in person.

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Image: Shutterstock/Markus Mainka

IT professionals with in-person tickets for CES 2022 are holding onto plans to attend as big tech companies scrap Las Vegas appearances. T-Mobile canceled its CES 2022 keynote earlier this week and Lenovo is keeping its team at home too. Amazon, AT&T, Meta and TikTok also have decided against in-person attendance.

CTA announced on Dec. 31 that the show would formally end at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7, instead of the previously scheduled closing on Saturday, Jan. 8.

Individual attendees with speaking plans and networking events are keeping their plane tickets for Las Vegas for now, while keeping an eye on case rates. The Omicron variant is pushing case numbers higher than the peak of Delta cases with the US hitting at average of 405,470 cases on Jan. 2. That represents a 204% increase over the last 14 days. Cases reached 165,000 on Sept. 1. Cases are up in the Las Vegas area as well. The vaccination rate is 53% in that part of the country.

Intel and self-driving car company Waymo also decided to move to a virtual-only CES 2022 late last week. P&G changed its plans on Tuesday and will be hosting its CES activities in its PGLifeLab. Google, Microsoft, AMD, HP, Nvidia and Intel also have cancelled plans for in-person attendance

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Forrester VP and principal analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee predicts “an avalanche of withdrawals” now that several big tech companies have decided against attending CES 2022 in person. 

“Keep in mind that T-Mobile’s CEO was on the docket for a keynote, which has now been abandoned in either physical or virtual format,” he said. “That’s a pretty significant pull out.” 

CES spokesperson Laura Ambrosio said the in-person show is going on.

“Given CES’ comprehensive health measures — vaccination requirement, masking and availability of COVID-19 tests — coupled with lower attendance and social distancing measures, we are confident that attendees and exhibitors can have a socially distanced but worthwhile and productive event in Las Vegas, as well as a rewarding experience on our digital access,” she said.

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Registrations stood at 15,000 as of December 13, and Ambrosio said digital and in-person registrations are continuing to show strong momentum, with thousands more registrations in the last few days. The official count of exhibitors is 2,200 as of Dec. 23.

“While we recently received 42 exhibitor cancellations (less than 7% of our exhibit floor), since last Thursday, we’ve added 60 new exhibitors for our in person event,” she said. 

Another factor working against in-person attendance is that there’s not enough time for the COVID-19 situation to get any better. 

“You have to feel bad for the CES organizers who have been planning for this hybrid event for a long time, finding some solace in growing vaccination rates and more lenient travel restrictions, until they got gob smacked by Omicron,” Chatterjee said.

SMB tech leaders hold onto in-person plans

CES is full of networking opportunities ranging from spontaneous conversations on shuttle buses and among audience members to private dinners and speaking engagements. Leaders at companies of all sizes are holding onto some of these in-person plans while canceling others as Omicron cases increase

AcuityAds chief strategy officer Seraj Bharwani is planning to send a small group of people who have on-stage commitments. His Boston-based company is monitoring the COVID case counts in Vegas closely and will confirm the final travel plans as the date gets closer. 

“We are quite satisfied with the safety protocols at the event that include evidence of vaccination, masking and frequent testing,” he said.

Sushil Prabhu, CEO and founder of Dropp, a micropayment transaction platform available for both fiat and cryptocurrency, is speaking at CES 2022 and his travel plans have not changed.

Prabhu doesn’t want to miss out on in-person conversations and the chance to see and experience new products firsthand and to network and build new business relationships. 

“Many of these interactions happen ad-hoc and cannot be replicated in a digital-only environment. For example, striking a conversation while waiting in a line for the badge or meeting a speaker who just walked by,” he said.

Prabhu is vaccinated and has had the booster shot and thinks that in-person events are safe with the appropriate health and safety measures in place.

“In general, I believe we have to get used to this new environment similar to how we got used to the long security lines post 9/11,” he said. “I just hope these test results are checked before people enter the venue and would like these tests done daily as this is a multi-day event.” 

Prabhu’s company is in New York City and he may change his plans if travel between states becomes an issue.

Origin Media‘s chief business officer and co-founder Stephen Strong was planning to attend CES in person and host private events. The media and technology company decided this week to significantly scale down its presence at CES and cancel any group-setting-based events. 

“All of the data points to this being the right decision and is in line with the approach of many companies attending,” he said. “It is regrettable, but we always have to put health first.”

Although CES leaders have put all possible precautions in place, Strong said, that is not always enough. In the last few days, they have spoken from a place of confidence, which now feels like it has transitioned to a position of defiance from Strong’s point of view. 

“While along with them, I want to attend events and have a sense of normalcy, there is going to be a point soon where if the COVID numbers continue trending the way they are, it would be irresponsible to hold the event at all,” he said.

Health protocols in place for CES 2022

In-person CES attendees have to show proof of vaccination when they pick up their badges. US attendees must use the Clear application to do so. Attendees also will get an Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Self Test kit at the registration desk. The kit contains two tests, which return results in 15 minutes. CES strongly encourages all participants to test for COVID-19 before they leave home and within 24 hours before entering a show venue.

Nevada requires people to wear masks at large indoor events. CES attendees will be required to wear masks in exhibit booths and indoor exhibit facilities, in conference and keynote rooms and on CES shuttle buses.

If a person tests positive with a molecular test while in a CES venue, organizers will provide a ride back to his or her hotel. CES is following CDC guidance for a 10-day isolation period. This means the individual will not be able to return to CES and organizers will ask the individual to return the conference badge.

CES will offer free PCR testing for international attendees who require testing prior to their return flight home.

Editor’s note: Article updated to reflect new cancellations, case counts and new end date for CES 2022.

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