CES vs Omicron: will the world’s greatest tech show blink?

Attendees at the CES trade show
(Image credit: CTA)

Two words zip through tech newsrooms every January like the electrical signals pulsing in a PC: “CES Flu,” shorthand for the cold you caught after a week spent interacting with 150,000 tech enthusiasts from around the globe at the industry's annual expo in Las Vegas. But the term took on new meaning in 2020, when the world’s biggest tech trade show was fingered as a superspreader event for Covid-19.

CES 2021 was cancelled due to Covid, but with the world having started to open up, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) – the trade group behind the show – announced that CES 2022 would be back on the ground in Sin City. However, with the virulent new Omicron variant of Covid posing a new and possibly unique threat, will the CTA hit 'Go' on CES?

“The safety of our participants and partners is a top priority,” Jamie Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the CTA, told TechRadar. “We are actively tracking the emerging news and science around the new Omicron variant and continue to follow guidance from the CDC [the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and WHO, as well as relevant federal, state, and local government requirements. While it is too early to determine the impact of this latest variant, we will continue to monitor and adjust our plans and health protocols as necessary.”

Too early for the CTA, perhaps. But the tech industry is watching – and it’s not thrilled.

A smaller CES for 2022

At the kick-off event for CES 2022 in New York City in November, CTA president Gary Shapiro admitted bluntly that the event would be smaller than in past years: “Let’s be honest: It will have a smaller footprint, and it will be fewer people. COVID is keeping some people home,” he said.

But will Omicron keep yet more people home? Over the last few days, as governments have instituted harsh quarantines and banned travelers from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, worries are growing. Consumer electronics giant LG announced on Monday that it planned a far more robust virtual presence for 2022 than in years past – but it told TechRadar the change had nothing to do Omicron.

"LG's corporate decision to approach participation in CES 2022 in a robust but different way occurred prior to the Omicron concerns that are now gaining global attention,” Chris De Maria, spokesman for LG, told us. “Renewed international travel challenges reaffirm the importance of engaging in a variety of ways with our key constituents – customers, consumers, partners and press – both onsite and digitally to experience LG's 2022 innovations in the way that best meets their needs."

Embracing virtual is key to the modern trade show, but will the old format exist at all for CES 2022? Some attendees seem skeptical.

“JLab Audio will still attending but we expect multiple in-person meetings to be cancelled,” Win Cramer, CEO of the consumer audio company, told us. Cramer plans a smaller team at the show than in pre-pandemic years – for now, anyway. “We're sending a fully vaxxed skeleton crew – the same crew that was scheduled to go pre-Omicron.”

Others are bluntly pessimistic. “I cannot imagine attending in person this year,” Dan Ness, founder of market research firm MetaFacts, said. “I expect we’ll hear exhibitors providing virtual alternatives, while others will blindly press ahead in real life.”

Health Protocols for your protection

The CTA does have comprehensive health protocols in place to minimize the spread of disease at the show, of course. Attendees must show proof of full vaccination against Covid-19, chairs will be spaced further apart during panels and press conferences, and even the width of many aisles will be increased – something made easier by the decreased number of vendors showing their wares.

And for 2022, the show was already planning to look different. The Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall is traditionally awash in computing components and drones and wireless charging dongles; this year it will be closed entirely. And a brand-new wing of the Las Vegas Convention Center, dubbed the West Wing, will be unveiled, as a home for the automobiles – self-driving and otherwise – that have cropped up in recent years.

But with the show now just a month off, and important questions about the transmissivness and deadliness of Omicron, and the efficacy of current vaccines in combatting the strain, yet to be answered, the question marks around the show are growing.

Meanwhile, the first case of infection by Omicron was reported in the United States on Wednesday. It's unlikely to be the last.

Jeremy Kaplan
Content Director, TechRadar

After 25 years covering the technology industry, Jeremy Kaplan is a familiar face in the media world. As Content Director for TechRadar, he oversees product development and quality. He was formerly Editor in Chief of Digital Trends, where he transformed a niche publisher into one of the fastest growing properties in digital media. Before that, he spent half a decade at one of the largest news agencies in the world, and cut his teeth in magazine business, long before the birth of the iPhone. In 2019, he was named to the FOLIO: 100, which honors publishing professionals making an industry-wide impact.