This week is a big one for the tech industry. The Consumer Electronics Show is always a banner week, in which various companies show off their latest tech advancements. Whether it's the latest in television, the newest hotness for gaming, or a neat little gadget to help with your pets at home, CES is the place to be and Las Vegas, Nevada houses it every January. This year's event was poised to be a special one, because it was supposed to be a triumphant return to normalcy. Everyone could gather safely in-person and check out the latest technological marvels. There was a lot of confidence in this show going off without a hitch, so much so that I booked my own hotel room for Vegas in hopes of getting my boots back on the ground.
Then the omicron variant hit and it spread rapidly. Infection numbers spiked to the point that they soon surpassed the worst days of the early pandemic. Big companies started to notice where the winds were blowing and began to pull out of the show floor. Those that didn't pull out of the show entirely kept their reveals safely behind closed doors. It eventually led to the question: Should CES 2022 have been cancelled?
Having walked around Las Vegas for myself, I can say that answer probably should have been yes.
The rapid spread of omicron
I originally booked my travel for CES around Thanksgiving weekend, confident that the show would go on as normal. I started hearing the word "omicron" go around and promptly ignored it. Part of that was pandemic fatigue. I had essentially been locked down for the better part of 18 months. As somebody who spent a vast portion of my pre-pandemic duties traveling, I relished the opportunity to get back on the road. Another reason I ignored the news was because I was fresh off receiving my booster shot. One fallacy of vaccines and boosters is that they can grant an erroneous sense of immortality. I'm boosted, so it must be safe to go see Spider-Man in a crowded theater, right?
I wanted to apply that same arrogant attitude to CES, but as the month of December unfolded, omicron spread more and more. It started to affect major sports, it started to affect travel, and then the records started breaking. Suddenly, a crowded international convention didn't seem like such a good idea anymore.
I wasn't the only one to think this. Over 153 companies cancelled their CES plans, including some heavy hitters like Google, IBM, GM, T-Mobile, Amazon, and Meta. Some, like IBM, opted to switch to digital presentations. Others, like Lenovo, just cancelled outright.
CES was increasingly looking like a disaster, but I still had a hotel room and the window to cancel was rapidly closing. It's not like I had a lot of appointments, which I'll touch on in a moment. I could still stay home. Heck, the Shacknews CEO and EICs made it clear that I did not have to attend this show if I didn't want to. However, part of me still looked at CES as my first crack at work travel. So, I took it. Then, I regretted it.
Wandering Las Vegas
Going into this week, I had fully expected to wander the show floor and play things by ear. I only had one appointment and it was with the folks at Razer. They were there to show off the new Razer Blade lineup, as well as a handful of other items that will be unveiled throughout the week. (Check out our CES 2022 and Razer tags for the latest.) My appointment was in a private suite at the Venetian hotel, one of the company's first for the week. Upon getting to the Venetian, I realized the tactical error I made in going through with this trip.
Omicron or not, it's still Las Vegas. While the casinos are still taking safety precautions along the shopping centers, gaming tables, and restaurants, the Venetian was packed. There were people all around me. They were wearing masks, but social distancing was not happening here. It really sunk in when I went from the parking garage to the elevators, as I saw over a dozen people try to cram themselves into a small space. Without any exaggeration, I waited about 20 minutes to get an elevator that was reasonably empty. I shared with one other person and, even then, I kept to myself in the corner.
As I rode the elevator to the casino level, I asked myself what I thought was going to happen this week. Did I really think the show floor was going to be any better than this? Did I honestly believe I wouldn't be surrounded by dozens of people walking up to the Arcade1Up booth or the LG corner? Was I going to stand in line for my usual Ben & Jerry's milkshake in the West Hall, surrounded by dozens of people trying to walk by me? (The answer to that last one is, "Probably." Those shakes have become an annual CES tradition for me.)
So the best laid plans don't always pan out. I expected CES to be my first in person event...and it kinda still is, because by the time omicron broke out, it was too late to cancel my travel plans.— Ozzie Mejia (@Ozz_Mejia) January 3, 2022
So I'm just keeping myself to ONE meeting this year. pic.twitter.com/2dlYkRi9X4
Before going into some of the details of my meeting, this is where I should note that the Razer Zephyr is a life saver. I finally managed to beat the bots and get my own just before the Christmas holiday and it proved to be worth every penny. The Zephyr fit comfortably over my mouth, protected me with N95-level filters along each ventilation port, and never felt bulky or heavy, in spite of its appearance. What a godsend this thing proved to be. My only complaint was when the Razer suite started to get warm, I turned up the Zephyr's fans to "High" through the app and got an idea of just how noisy that thing could get. Still, if you can get one, get it.
Speaking of my Razer meeting, I shared some of my anxieties with some of my PR contacts. This is where they told me that most of the gaming side of the aisle had those same concerns. Razer would have a show floor presence, but was largely focused on private meetings with the media. Other companies were likewise shifting to private suite meetings in an effort to avoid overcrowding and increase safety.
Once my meeting with Razer was finished, I was done with CES. I went back to my hotel and never left again, packing up and heading home. All I had to show for my trip was a single meeting, lessons learned, and a story to get off my chest.
The digital future
With hundreds of companies backing out of the CES show floor and companies like Razer increasingly moving towards private meetings, I came to the conclusion that CES 2022 as an in-person event never should have happened. While I understand that a show of this magnitude takes months to set up, the spread of the omicron variant was unprecedented. While some may argue that there was no way to see its impact coming, once it came, steps should have been taken to shift to a fully digital presentation.
It's not like digital presentations don't have their share of excitement. NVIDIA and Sony both dazzled consumers with Tuesday showcases, revealing cool new products to look forward to in the coming year. Whether they stream live or have presentations available on demand, maybe this is the format to run with for the foreseeable future. Assuming life ever gets back to normal, maybe it's possible to run a hybrid show format.
I'll say this, though, trying to move forward with CES 2022 like nothing was wrong was a big mistake. I learned my lesson and plan to quarantine, out of an abundance of caution. I can only hope the CES showrunners learn something from this week, as well.