One of the most closely-watched annual tech conferences, CES, is going ahead with plans to hold an in-person event in two weeks, even as a growing number of prominent technology companies are pulling the plug on their plans to attend in person amid a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Amazon (AMZN), Meta (FB), T-Mobile (TMUS), Twitter (TWTR) and Pinterest (PINS) confirmed this week that they no longer plan to attend CES in Las Vegas early next month, citing health concerns and uncertainty from the recent spike in Covid-19 cases.
“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority. Due to the quickly shifting situation and uncertainty around the Omicron variant, we will no longer have an on-site presence at CES,” Amazon spokesperson Sarah Sobolewski said in a statement. The company still plans to have a virtual presence.
“Out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees, we won’t be attending CES in-person due to the evolving public health concerns related to COVID-19,” Kamran Mumtaz, a spokesperson for Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, said in a statement. “We will participate virtually as much as possible and continue to collaborate with the CTA around CES, which remains an important event for Meta, our clients and industry partners,” Mumtaz added, referring to the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts the event.
Some media outlets, including the Verge and CNN, have also begun to cancel their plans to cover CES in person, after many were already planning to send smaller teams than usual.
Even before companies started pulling out this year, CES was expected to be a smaller-than-usual affair, but CTA confirmed Wednesday it has no plans to pull the plug on in-person attendance altogether. Instead, it plans to implement safety measures including vaccine mandates and mask and testing requirements. CES will also have online components for companies and attendees who won’t be going in person.
“CES will still take place Jan 5-8 in Las Vegas with strong safety measures in place,” the conference’s media team said in a statement to CNN Business. “Thousands of entrepreneurs, businesses, media and buyers are planning to come to Las Vegas. Top leaders from federal and state and foreign governments are attending. And, we have received several thousand new registrants since late last week.”
But the company announcements this week are a potential setback for organizers. The upcoming event is set to be the first time CES welcomes back in-person attendees to its annual show since 2020, which took place weeks before the Covid-19 outbreak became a full-blown pandemic. (The event was held virtually last year.)
The situation is reminiscent of the unraveling of another major tech event in February 2020, the Mobile World Congress, which is usually held in Barcelona, Spain but was canceled after more than a dozen big companies pulled out as Covid-19 spread.
The CES situation also points to the ongoing challenges of putting on large, international events, even nearly two years into the pandemic. Earlier this week, the World Economic Forum said its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland would be postponed from next month until early summer. Cybersecurity company RSA on Wednesday also pushed back its annual conference from February to June.
CES — normally one of the tech industry’s splashiest annual conferences that sets the tone for the biggest trends of the year — was a more muted event last year in an all-digital format, with just 1,800 exhibitors compared to the 4,000 exhibitors who attended in person the year before.
In addition to challenges for the industry, participants withdrawing from CES may be bad news for the city of Las Vegas — in a normal year, the economic benefit of the show to the city amounts to around $291 million.
Telecom giant T-Mobile, a CES sponsor, on Thursday released a statement announcing that it would withdraw from attending the show in person and that its CEO Mike Sievert would no longer give a keynote speech, either in person or virtually. “T-Mobile’s entire team looks forward to an in-person CES 2023, which we hope includes an on-stage keynote in front of a live audience,” the company said.