Jan 3, 2022 - Technology

CES puts smaller tech firms in a bind

Illustration of a conference lanyard with the letter O and a covid particle icon on it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

CES' push to proceed with its giant Las Vegas trade show this week, amid a raft of major companies canceling in-person participation in the shadow of the Omicron variant, has put many smaller companies in a tough spot.

What's happening: In private notes and email threads, many smaller exhibitors have fumed at being forced to choose between potentially losing a substantial investment or risking their employees' health.

Why it matters: Despite the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the Consumer Technology Association has been determined to move forward with its show. The show officially starts on Wednesday and will end on Friday — a day earlier than planned. (Various pre-show media events start earlier, though many of them have been shifted to online-only affairs.)

  • CTA officials have touted requirements for vaccinations, the availability of testing and comments from the CEO of a Reno, Nevada, health organization to suggest the event can be safely held.
  • Large tech companies that have pulled out of in-person presence include Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Meta, Twitter and key sponsor T-Mobile, whose CEO was scheduled to give a keynote.
  • Some, such as Qualcomm and Samsung, are moving forward with their in-person events and keynotes. Samsung on Sunday announced a slew of new home entertainment gear, including a range of new TVs, a smart monitor and a TV remote that can recharge using radio waves from a nearby router.
  • More than 2,000 other companies will also be exhibiting, though that number might have been lower had CES organizers guaranteed refunds to companies that wanted to cancel.

Between the lines: Balancing economic and health concerns is tough for all parties here, including CTA, which counts on the event for a significant chunk of its funding.

  • Most of the major tech news outlets won't be covering the event in person, further limiting the benefit to smaller exhibitors who press on.
  • In its messaging, CTA has talked about the benefits of the industry being able to gather in person while saying it understands that not everyone can or will want to do so and pointing to digital options.
  • Asked about whether it will be giving refunds to exhibitors who canceled over COVID concerns, a CTA representative told Axios that the organization "will have more information regarding reimbursements in the coming days."

What they're saying: “CES is excited to return ‘home’ to Las Vegas for a physical event in just a few days," CTA said in a statement. "Construction of exhibitors’ show floor space is well underway and over 2200 companies will be participating in person."

Go deeper: Here's where you can find Axios updates from CES all week.

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