Build it and they may not come

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrott

After mass cancellations due to the Omicron variant, CES 2022 marks a tepid return to live events for the new year.

CES 2022 has officially kicked off in person in Las Vegas, Nevada.

But many in the advertising industry who were planning to be there (including yours truly) canceled their trips to stream the conference from the comfort and safety of their homes.

Despite the game of “will they, won’t they” played over the past couple of weeks in regards to whether the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) would cancel the show, CES is carrying on, Omicron be damned.

In normal years, tens of thousands of global technology professionals descended on Vegas to toy around with the latest gizmos on the floor of the city’s convention center.

Smart homes, autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality, smart TVs and computing chips are often front and center; this year, expect more talk of the metaverse and NFTs. (We’ve got you covered on what’s new and exciting here.)

But as we’ve learned time and again since March 2020, there is no more “normal.” While the show will go on, it will be sorely missing attendance from some of the world’s largest tech giants, including Meta, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Pinterest, Snap and T-Mobile, to name a few.

For the ad industry, a microcosm of CES, core programming at the C-Space will be significantly hobbled. Just before Christmas, MediaLink, a major partner of the CTA, canceled its programming and coveted executive dinner “with an overabundance of caution.”

Sources I’ve spoken to on the ground say the scene in the Aria Hotel, normally bustling with advertising executives and plastered with branding from ad tech companies, is quiet.

Add that to the list of called-off parties from WarnerMedia, iHeartMedia, Stagwell and more, and there won’t be much networking or partying for adland at this year’s annual tech confab.

CES was supposed to be the industry’s big return to live events after two years of working, networking and connecting remotely. But as the Omicron variant suddenly and rapidly spread, advertising-centric New York City was hit hard and fast, spooking companies from attending their first mass gathering in two years.

Marketers that planned activations at CES are scrambling to flip their strategies to virtual. Best Buy, which intended to rebrand its ad business at CES, canceled its trade show activations in favor of reallocating spend to digital. Based on the number of meetings I’ve had tabled over the past two weeks, I can only imagine how many marketers face similar dilemmas.

While many are becoming numb to the constant changes around COVID-19 variants, vaccinations and health protocols, the rapid unraveling of CES this year is a harbinger for live events in 2022, and most likely beyond.

CES is happening, but other business tentpoles events aren’t. JPMorgan flipped its 40th annual healthcare conference, scheduled for mid-January in San Francisco, to a virtual event. And the World Economic Forum will not return to Davos later this month.

As the industry processes the damage another COVID scare has on its psyche, many are reconsidering the definition of a “tentpole” and finding new ways to insulate themselves from another unexpected surge — or another kind of disaster altogether.

It will be fascinating to see the ripple effects of CES, and how the unraveling of this year’s event impacts the industry's appetite to go all-in on in-person. Maybe the new strategy isn’t to show up guns blazing at one or two big annual bonanzas, and instead send smaller groups to attend more concentrated events throughout the year. Cannes 2022 in June will be especially important to watch, given its gravitational pull for the ad industry.

CES was the litmus test for a big return to live in 2022. And instead of writing this post in a too-loud corner of a Vegas hotel lobby between meetings, I am sitting on my couch in sweatpants and fuzzy socks desperately trying to navigate the CES website.

Virtual is no longer the backup plan. And amid an ongoing pandemic, just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come.

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