The organizers of CES are still promising an in-person conference in Las Vegas in the first week in January, even as many companies, now including GM, Google and TikTok, planned to take their activities around the event virtual because of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases around the world.
CES, which is run by the Consumer Technology Association, saw new departures from major tech brands that make up some of the core exhibitors at the electronics show. Earlier this week, TikTok already had been reassessing its plans to travel to Las Vegas, where CES organizers were hoping for a splashy return to the in-person tech conference. TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media giant, had been a late sign-up, only announcing plans to attend CES this month.
“In light of the increase in positive COVID-19 cases across the country, TikTok has decided to host a virtual TikTok CES experience for our brands and partners,” a company spokesperson told Ad Age in an email.
Then late Thursday, more big names moved their CES online, including Google, GM and Waymo, the Alphabet-owned self-driving car maker. Alphabet is Google’s parent company. Google is a featured exhibitor at CES, and it was planning a major installation at the Las Vegas Convention Center before it pulled out. “We will continue to collaborate closely with both CTA and our partners to identify and support virtual opportunities, and we look forward to sharing the latest Google innovations with you all,” a Google spokesperson said by email on Thursday.
GM represents another significant loss for CES as the carmaker was among the big auto brands set to showcase new technology like electric vehicles, which is an increasingly important part of the tech sector. GM was set to show off its BrightDrop all-electric delivery truck, electric batteries and other vehicles at the convention center. Also, GM CEO Mary Barra will now host a keynote speech online, instead of live from Las Vegas.
The CES cancellations began to pile up this week, with companies like Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter and Amazon, all altering plans. Also, Pinterest, while not an official exhibitor, decided against sending staff to Las Vegas, where it planned to host events around the show. Meanwhile, iHeartMedia canceled its big concert, a popular draw during CES week, and instead plans to only send a small team.
CES organizers said that it received 42 cancellation, or less than 7% of exhibitors, as of late Wednesday. The organizers said more than 2,100 exhibitors are set to attend.
As of today, big tech companies like Samsung and Sony still had plans to appear in Las Vegas. Samsung Electronics’ new CEO Jong-Hee Han is still scheduled to make an in-person speech on Jan. 4 in Las Vegas.
“With CES 2022 just two short weeks away, and as I embark on a new role here at Samsung, I am greatly honored to be hosting our pre-show keynote, held under the theme ‘Together for Tomorrow,’” Han said in a blog post on Wednesday. “Since the last time we connected at CES in person, we’ve all undergone a period of significant change. We’ve had to re-examine our relationship with the world around us and re-prioritize the things we care about most. We have found greater value in ‘togetherness,’ being closer with our family and friends.”
Sony is still committed to appear live in Las Vegas, as well. “At Sony Electronics we are currently planning on joining CES 2022 in person, and we will also offer a digital option for our press event,” a Sony Electronics spokesperson said by email on Thursday. “With an eye on safety, we continue to closely monitor the evolving situation of COVID-19 and variants.”
CES organizers are adamant that the show can go on, despite more parts of the event moving online. This week, MediaLink, the management consulting firm run by CEO Michael Kassan, decided to move “C Space” to an all-virtual presentation. C Space is typically where many of the ad agencies, tech companies and brands talk about innovation. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others usually appear at C Space, held at Aria Resort and Casino, even more than they do at the main Las Vegas Convention Center. The convention center is where the heart of the electronics show is on display.
However, even main CES sponsors have reassessed going to Las Vegas. This week, Intel, Lenovo, T-Mobile, AT&T and IBM decided against attending CES in-person. They are among the “featured exhibitors.”
Meanwhile, MediaLink’s opening night party, which is always one of the hottest tickets for CES-goers, was canceled, as was MediaLink’s exclusive executive dinner.
Companies began to reconsider attendance at CES, set to take place from Jan. 5 to 8, after the surge in cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19. CES organizers have said all along that they planned a hybrid event, part-virtual and part-live. CES worked with Web Summit, the popular European tech conference, to host parts of the electronics show, keynote speeches and panels online. Before omicron, CES hoped for in-person attendance to reach about 50% of its pre-pandemic levels. In January 2020, CES was held just before the first COVID shutdowns hit North America in March, and about 170,000 people went to Las Vegas for that show.
“CES 2022 will be in person on January 5-8 in Las Vegas with strong safety measures in place, and our digital access is also available for people that don’t wish to, or can’t travel to Las Vegas,” the CTA said in its latest statement on the state of the show. “Our mission remains to convene the industry and give those who cannot attend in person the ability to experience the magic of CES digitally.”
CES has vaccine and masking requirements, and organizers are giving free rapid tests to attendees, encouraging people to test before entering key areas of the show.
Major brands are on the schedule, including car, electronics and consumer products makers. P&G, for instance, has been planning to showcase Tide, OralB, home cleaning goods and beauty products. The company already has a virtual version of its CES show, which it developed for last year’s online CES. The online space is called the P&G Life Lab. As of Thursday, P&G did not return requests for comment on its latest plans.
“This was always the plan, from the beginning, was to have both a virtual approach, as well as the in-person approach,” Maytal Levi, Procter & Gamble’s corporate communications manager told Ad Age in a recent phone interview. “So our plans haven’t changed in terms of how we’re going to show up. We’ll of course follow CES guidance on any changes that come between now and then, because as you know the pandemic can shift any second.”
Terence Kawaja, CEO of Luma Partners, the financial consulting firm focused on tech and advertising, has been watching as the cascade of cancellations pour in from around the industry. Kawaja said fewer people could even lead to a better experience on the ground. “I think the event still happens, just with a scaled down attendance,” Kawaja said. “Who knows, it could end up being better. I remember that in 2018, Cannes had a major pullback in attendance by 30%, which resulted in a better event with less lines.”
Earlier this month, Jean Foster, senior VP of marketing and communications at CTA, told Ad Age that CES planned to livestream keynote addresses and about one-third of the panels. The rest of the show would be available on-demand online after a brief window after it appeared live at CES, Foster said. Web Summit’s “software was really geared more toward this environment of where you’re going to have people physically, and also have people joining the event digitally,” Foster said.
The advertising world, which usually sees many ad agencies and their brand clients head to Las Vegas for CES, had fewer reasons to attend as companies dropped out. Marla Kaplowitz, CEO and president of 4A’s, the ad industry trade group, said that she is hearing “salespeople are frustrated with the lack of in-person opportunities to connect with people and build relationships as it’s not the same virtually.”
Kaplowitz was scheduled to attend and sit on a panel with IBM Watson Advertising to discuss bias in advertising. The panel is now virtual, but it would be harder for electronics makers to make the jump to an online presentation for product reveals, Kaplowitz said.
“It’s really challenging for the exhibitors to switch to virtual,” Kaplowitz said. “It was difficult to do proper demos of products when part of the benefit of CES and the convention center experience is the ability to have hands-on and in-person exposure.”