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What it was like to cover a very uncrowded CES during a pandemic

The show did not go on as usual, but it did go on—and for the hardy souls who made it to Vegas, it wasn’t all bad news.

What it was like to cover a very uncrowded CES during a pandemic
[Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images]

Over the quarter of a century that I’ve been covering CES in Las Vegas, I’ve used a lot of words to describe this annual tech-industry gathering. Until this year, “efficient” was not one of them.

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But with the resurgent pandemic deflating CES 2022’s attendance to what the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Technology Association reported Friday as “well over 44,000 attendees”—down from 171,000 in in January 2020, shortly before COVID-19 struck—this show might as well have been governed by different laws of physics.

Most of CES’s customary lines—to collect an attendee badge, watch a panel, get a press-room lunch—were gone. Commutes between venues didn’t congeal like usual, with the almost 1.5-mile ride from the Venetian Expo to the Las Vegas Convention Center taking under 10 minutes instead of the 44 minutes I experienced in 2020.

Along with enforcing masking, CES had to deal with new issues such as helping people convey whether they’d prefer a handshake, a fist bump, or a no-contact greeeting. [Photo: Rob Pegoraro]
As a random vacationer on the same bus to the airport Friday said to me: “I didn’t know it was CES week.”

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Inside CES 2022’s exhibit areas, social distancing was easier, thanks to all the space left vacant by firms that either never signed up for this year’s show or  backed out in recent weeks (including Amazon, GM, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, and T-Mobile) over omicron anxiety.

A 75% reduction in show attendance helped make social distancing practical. [Photo: Rob Pegoraro]
The checkerboard of open spaces on the Venetian Expo and the LVCC show floors evoked CES 2009, when the cratering economy forced a wave of late cancellations. But this time also featured companies that held onto their rented space but left it functionally vacant.

LG set up a “Life’s Good Lounge” that suggested life was not that good. This wireframe of an exhibit scattered QR codes on stands across a plywood floor for visitors to scan to learn about products not in sight, combining in-person attendance’s sore-feet factor with virtual attendance’s absence of hands-on gadget inspection.

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LG replaced its booth full of cool gadgets with plywood and QR codes. [Photo: Rob Pegoraro]
A short walk away, Panasonic filled out its real estate by projecting sizzle-reel videos on a series of walls, then had its own array of QR codes waiting at empty tables.

But no tumbleweeds were spotted blowing through CES 2022’s halls. Many mid-size and smaller vendors seemed to have chosen to roll the dice on showing up at a show with less distraction from their larger rivals—and to judge from the decent crowds at their stands, that gamble paid off.

This was the first CES involving symbols of disease festively suspended from the ceiling. [Photo: Rob Pegoraro]
In temporary structures in the LVCC parking lot, people gathered to see BMW’s concept car covered in color-changing e-ink, Sierra Space Co.’s mockup of its Dream Chaser spaceplane, and John Deere’s self-driving tractor, capable of plowing a field unattended.

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A break for the little guys

Inside the LVCC, the exits of some top-tier companies probably boosted such lesser-known exhibitors as the Korean massage-chair vendor Bodyfriend. (I did not go into this show planning to have a remote-controlled chair give me an EKG and a massage, but CES can be like that.) On the lower level of the Venetian Expo, the Eureka Park startup exhibition area seemed only moderately less packed than usual, even though many of of the international exhibitors who might otherwise have been shown off their wares had opted out a difficult global journey.

I did have dinner indoors with two friends whom I hadn’t seen since at least 2019.

And while most of the press conferences Tuesday were lightly attended affairs, two had enough people show up that company reps turned me away. As in, I had to watch their events on my laptop at a conference at which nobody would supposedly to show up because so many people would follow things only online.

CTA decided early on to keep CES 2022 open for remote attendees, then got outside help with that by hiring Web Summit’s organizers to produce their online platform and mobile app.

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For in-person attendees, CTA implemented policies that reflected how far we’ve advanced since the scary, early days of the pandemic. It required proof of vaccination—no exemptions for medical reasons, religious beliefs, or prior COVID-19 infection. And it required masking, a rule I saw followed consistently on the show floor but not by panel speakers onstage (I was among them, having been asked on short notice to replace a moderator who had a family member test positive).

As far as COVID-19 safety measures go, the rest of Vegas was another matter–and a distinct contrast from the location of the last big event I attended, Web Summit. Between Clark County’s dismal 54% fully-vaccinated rate (Portugal had hit 86% by that early-November gathering in Lisbon) and the way the casino demographic generally self-selects for poor risk management, I didn’t even think about stopping by a blackjack table.

CTA also handed out rapid antigen tests from Abbott Laboratories at badge-pickup stations, making CES my first opportunity to procure one in weeks.

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The other masking shortfall came at mealtimes, thanks to the pesky reality of having to eat and drink via an opening in one’s face through which one also breathes. I usually compensated by eating antisocially, retreating from other people until I could restore my mask. But I did have dinner indoors with two friends whom I hadn’t seen since at least 2019. Having been fully vaccinated, then boosted in mid-November, I rated that an acceptable risk.

I have since had successive negative results from antigen tests—once Friday night, the second Sunday afternoon. A third test might show a different result. But then again, I’m back in an environment without a vaccination requirement and in which mask compliance is less assured. It may turn out that CES was safer than my everyday whereabouts.

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About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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