CES 2022 preview: Crowds set to return to Las Vegas, but digital element remains

The Consumer Technology Association's Jean Foster tells ZDNet how CES is evolving to become a hybrid in-person/digital event.

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The crowds -- vaccinated, masked and socially distanced -- are set to return to CES 2022 in January.

Image: CTA

Back in July 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines still six months away, the CTA (Consumer Technology Association) announced that its upcoming CES 2021 show would be an all-digital experience. Come January 2021, the Las Vegas exhibition venues, normally packed with stands from companies large and small, remained empty; keynotes and product demos were relayed online, with no in-person audiences; and the normal hectic round of face-to-face meetings and chance encounters on the show floor simply didn't happen. 

Basically, CES 2021 mirrored its audience, which was busy working remotely, under varying levels of social-distancing measures depending on the local or regional state of the pandemic. The tech industry still managed to discuss and demonstrate new technologies and products at CES 2021, but it was inevitably a smaller show, although still claimed by the CTA as 'the largest digital tech event'

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Data: CTA / Chart: ZDNet
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Jean Foster, SVP of marketing & communications at the Consumer Technology Association.

Image: CTA

As CES 2022 approaches, the coronavirus pandemic is still very much with us, although vaccines -- where available and taken up -- have thankfully reduced the chances of serious illness or death should you catch the virus. As a result, just as employers are now looking at hybrid working, so the CTA is planning a hybrid CES, melding the virtual experience with suitably regulated in-person attendance. 

To get an idea of what to expect in Las Vegas -- or at your computer -- next January, ZDNet speaks (remotely) with the CTA's SVP of marketing and communications, Jean Foster

First, what did the CTA learn from staging CES virtually in 2021? 

"The virtual show was actually a very good event for us. We had over 83,000 people attend as pre-qualified industry attendees. We also streamed a lot of it live on social media, our keynotes got great coverage and keynote speakers still made big announcements," she says.  

"I joined the company five years ago to transform the business digitally -- not thinking that would mean all of CES!"  

The goal now is to preserve the best elements of the virtual experience and move forward with a hybrid show, Foster says. 

"The feedback from our exhibitors was good, because they still had that interaction with their key audiences; they still had media engagement, they still had calls and [online] meetings with their buyers -- they got their content out there. They found it very valuable, and so as we go into 2022 we're going to have the physical event, but we'll also have a digital programme running in parallel, and exhibitors can still create Digital Activations [virtual exhibits]." 

One thing that didn't suffer during the virtual 2021 event was media coverage, Foster says: "A lot of media want to come to Las Vegas, but their outlet is not going to send everybody from the editorial staff. When it's digital, everyone can participate, and what exhibitors found was that media coverage during the event was actually similar to prior years. We also kept the online platform open for 30 days, and we saw a lot of media going back and checking stories." 

So the media will be all over CES 2022 as usual, but what about exhibitors, which were 56% down in 2021 compared with the previous 'normal' year? Will those numbers be back up again?

"We've got over 1,100 exhibitors at the moment, but we're still selling -- smaller companies in Eureka Park typically come in around this time -- and we expect that number to go up to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 companies. That's smaller than previous years, which we knew would happen, and we've been very open that this will be a smaller show." 

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Recent moves by the Biden administration to lift travel restrictions to the US have helped to boost exhibitor attendance, Foster says. 

"A number of country groups that typically bring large contingents of startups are now committed to making plans -- Italy, France, the Netherlands, Korea, the UK, Japan...they're all committed to bringing groups to Las Vegas, which is good for us." 

Likely to be missing from the Eureka Park startup zone in January, however, are Chinese companies, Foster says: "The show is going to be smaller this year, and that's not a bad thing -- as we get people coming back, you want to able to space out." 

On the subject of managing an in-person trade show in an ongoing pandemic, CES has already announced that proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required before attendees can pick up their badges. The CTA is also looking at proof of a positive antibody test as an alternative requirement, but details on that will be shared closer to showtime, Foster says. 

US attendees will use the (iOS or Android) CLEAR Health Pass app to upload their proof of vaccination and generate a QR code to access their badges. "We're still working on the international part," Foster says, "but essentially, if you have a vaccination that's approved by WHO and the US, there'll be a third-party app that will validate your proof of vaccination and give you a green check-mark." 

Masks are currently required in all public indoor spaces in Las Vegas. Other health measures in place for CES 2022 include venue accreditation, wider aisles and one-way traffic flow within venues, plus social distancing in conference areas and meeting rooms. 

Key themes for CES 2022 

CES 2022 will see the return of well-known large tech companies like Samsung, Sony and LG, along with recent high-profile attendees, such as John Deere, a leader in the burgeoning agri-tech space. John Deere will feature in one of the new categories for CES 2022: Food Tech, which will cover a wide range of topics including smart farming, ingredient innovation, meal kits and deliveries, nutrition, plant-based proteins, traceability, sustainability, and vertical farming. 

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On show in Space Tech at CES 2022: Sierra Space's Dream Chaser space plane.

Image: Sierra Space

Another new and intriguing category is Space Tech, a highlight of which will be Sierra Space's Dream Chaser, a multi-mission space utility vehicle designed to transport crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit (LEO) destinations such as the International Space Station. "We have an actual space plane in Las Vegas," Foster says, "and we're very excited about that." 

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Digital assets in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) and other blockchain-based technologies and businesses get their own category at CES 2022 for the first time. A company to look out for here, Foster says, is Netgear, which will be showcasing a digital canvas for NFT art

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Digital Health is an existing topic that, not surprisingly, has seen rapid growth in recent years. So much so, that for CES 2022 it has been moved to a larger venue – the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) – to accommodate "everything from telemedicine, telehealth, digital therapeutics -- all the technologies that give you and I the ability to start to manage our own healthcare," Foster says. Another indication of healthcare's increased CES profile is the presence on the keynote stage of Robert B. Ford, president and CEO of Abbott, which is increasingly positioning itself as "a tech company in the healthcare space," Foster says. 

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The automotive sector is moving to a larger Las Vegas venue for CES 2022, thanks to record growth and the presence of exhibits like TuSimple's self-driving freight truck.

Image: TuSimple

The opening keynote at CES 2022 will be delivered by GM's chair and CEO Mary Barra -- an indication of the continuing high profile of the automotive sector at the show. "We're over 185 companies, from manufacturers to OEMs, electric vehicle companies and transportation companies," says Foster. "Again, we've had to move it physically to accommodate this growth, to the West Hall at the LVCC, which gives us 600,000 square feet -- that's bigger than most North American convention centers in one hall alone." Among the automotive companies Foster highlights is TuSimple, which will be showing off its self-driving freight truck -- something that clearly needs lots of space. 

There's plenty more for CES-goers, remote or in-person, to look out for in January, including: C-Space, which caters for media companies, brands and advertising agencies; the Innovation Awards Program, which has had a record 1,800 submissions for 2022; and the Global Tech Challenge, a CTA/World Bank Group partnership that will reward deserving solutions relating to digital health, the gender divide and climate change. 

At CES 2022, the CTA will try to deliver the best possible hybrid trade show -- a model that will undoubtedly evolve going forward. Although many will be happy to cover CES from afar, Foster notes that the CTA's audience research on the virtual 2021 event identified "the group that came back and said 'I want to go back to live, because it's not the same', was the media". Perhaps not surprising, as there's really no substitute for hands-on experience with a new product and in-person interaction with its creators. 

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