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CES 2022 is going to be that rare technology trade show extravaganza where bigger isn’t necessarily better. As it returns to its physical venues in Las Vegas, the biggest tech trade show probably be half the size, with an estimated 1,700 physical exhibitors on the reduced show floor and perhaps half of the 171,268 visitors that showed up at the last physical event in early 2020.
The main show takes place on January 5 to January 8, with press events starting as early as January 3. But even with its reduced size, show host Gary Shapiro is excited the event is coming back as an in-person show after the pandemic-induced all-digital early 2021 show. Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, spoke with me about the latest plans for the event in an interview.
Last year was very painful as the CTA had to cut back on a lot of its staff and couldn’t employ a lot of locals in Las Vegas, whose economy depends on such events. While the show moved online, it wasn’t nearly as engaging as in-person shows are where you can browse aisles, discover things you didn’t expect to see, and meet strangers at events. That’s why I’m looking forward to the event again.
Shapiro noted that both registrations and exhibitors are growing by the week, and international travel, which is critical to the event, is starting to come back. Places like the Netherlands and Italy are sending a record number of exhibitors. Still, not many travelers are coming to the U.S. from China, due to strict quarantine rules for travelers in China. Domestically, the airlines are adding flights.
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But he noted the smaller size will be good in terms of being able to make people are properly spaced and the venues are safe in light of the ongoing pandemic. For safety, some venues have changed how they circulate air, and food will be delivered in new ways. Attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination (and it’s probably a good idea to get a booster shot ahead of the show). I’ll be heading there to moderate a session on the metaverse, which is a cool topic these days, and one on digital health.
As for hot technologies, Shapiro said lots of automakers returning with electronics-ladened cars. The metaverse will be a draw, as will nonfungible tokens, digital health, food tech, automotive tech, NFTs, gaming, and smart homes.
Of course, electronic device manufacturers are experiencing a grave shortage of parts that will last through 2022. It would be a shame to see lots of cool gadgets that we won’t be able to purchase until 2023.
On the political and regulatory front, Shapiro sees hot topics such as antitrust, privacy, and other social impact issues. He thinks it’s good that regulators and members of Congress will be coming to the show to help understand and learn about new technology.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: How is the back to kind-of normal CES planning going? If you walk back to the decision to do it live, how far does that go?
Gary Shapiro: I don’t know if I’d call it normal. I’d call it back to live, face to face, interactive. The last time we made the decision in July — or we kind of made it in June, but the board approved it in July — and that was seven months ahead of time, which was unprecedented in the trade show world. People thought we were crazy. Obviously, it was the right decision. You can make a decision to cancel something early, but other than that you just keep going forward. Although we did issue a press release saying we were returning to Las Vegas and that got a lot of traction, which totally befuddled me. Of course, we’re returning to Las Vegas. Why would anyone doubt that? But I’m not that smart about what’s newsworthy.
VentureBeat: Are you expecting a smaller crowd, or deliberately trying to have a smaller crowd this time?
Shapiro: I’d say it’s a combination of both. Definitely, we want a smaller group, and we’re getting a smaller group through a whole range of factors. One is that China is pretty much–it’s super challenging. I was just talking to another global show producer who just finished their event. They said they had no one from China or Hong Kong or Taiwan. I don’t know if I expect no one at all, but just getting back into China is a two to four-week quarantine depending on where you end up. I understand that. Obviously, there are some other issues between China and the U.S. right now as far as travel. But that’s another issue right there. Some other countries are having visa issues as well.
I’m pretty encouraged by the fact that the Biden administration opened up international travel pretty fully, and even domestically–today’s announcement that everyone can get a booster shot is helpful. United Airlines just added 24 flights domestically for one week in Las Vegas for us. We’re expecting a significant crowd. I can’t tell you what that will be. I can tell you it will be fewer people than normal, which is fine.
It’ll look different and feel different. That’s why I say it’s not normal. We’ve widened the aisles. We’re using a whole new facility in Las Vegas. It’s brand new. It’s called West Hall. The auto portion of the show, the mobility portion, has grown so much that we’ve moved it there. We’ve never had mobility that large. We’ll have almost 200 mobility exhibitors. We even have a Vietnamese car company coming, which is cool. We won’t be using South Hall because we have the new facility. The show’s also spread out.
In terms of exhibitor numbers, what we’re seeing is more than 1,700. A month ago we were saying more than 1,100. I don’t know where we’ll end up, because we’re still adding, while some companies are saying they just can’t do it. They have supply chain issues, visa issues. They can’t get their prototypes. We always have some of that. There’s always given and take at the end. But the momentum is there to gain 600 or so exhibitors in a month, and they keep coming in.
A lot of them are just smaller companies in Eureka Park, things like that, and countries bringing their delegations, but that’s good news. The Netherlands and Italy are bringing record delegations. I was in Paris where CES was unveiled in Paris. I met with President Macron. He was talking about CES and how great it is. All of a sudden we had a call from the head of the French business group there saying they’d bring a lot more now because Macron’s talking about it in a very positive way. There’s a lot going on.
On the other side, there are issues with COVID still that countries are having. But there’s a lot more good news than there is bad news right now. We’re optimistic. We’re feeling good about it. The companies are excited. I expected things that didn’t happen. I expected people to want to keynote from their home offices. We haven’t gotten one request like that. In fact, we had a record number of people who wanted to keynote. They wanted to be there physically. They wanted to be there because it’s a five-sense experience of a trade show. They want to reacquaint themselves with their customers, frankly, and the press. Even their employees, they want to see them, at the CEO level. I’ve had a lot of discussions with CEOs around the world about this. This is universal.
We’ve gotten a great response to the vaccine requirement, which was unprecedented when we announced it. One CEO just thanked me. He said, “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my employees to do this. You guys put us over.” Because people want to go to CES.
VentureBeat: How did you want to work to reassure people? That’s one thing, but are there others?
Shapiro: We’re doing so many things. The convention centers and hotels have changed how they ventilate the air. There are other measures to be taken like the conference room seating, how the food is being delivered. The masking requirement in Las Vegas is there. We’re doing some testing in certain circumstances. We’re doing a lot of different things. We want people to feel comfortable coming from around the world. The vaccine provides a certain level of protection against getting the disease, and if you do get it it’s a more modest form.
I think people will be more sensitive. I’m optimistic that even the flu will be going down. People often get the flu given the time of year. But everyone’s more sensitive. They’re wearing masks, washing their hands, doing all sorts of things. We’re doing real social distancing. The events we’re having, we just won’t have as many people there. The show is spread out over more places and our new facilities. We’ll have the bigger aisles. It’ll look less crowded.
We’re trying to set expectations here so that people will understand that it’s going to look different. I don’t view it as “we’re back.” This is a different, important, transitional event.
VentureBeat: It seems like a big year for tech policy issues. We had the Epic vs. Apple trial. Facebook has had a lot of issues. What are some things that are on your mind around what’s concerning policymakers?
Shapiro: We already have acceptances from policymakers from Europe and the United States. We have members of Congress, commissioners, people like that. We’ll be making announcements in the next few weeks. The initial response I got to our invites was better than I’ve ever seen. People are interested. We got very few “no” responses, which was shocking. People are eager to get out. We saw that in Paris, Amsterdam, and New York. People are eager to be with each other again. The policymakers in the Biden administration are happy to get out there and see the real world. What we found in all three venues, our events there in the past few weeks were the first things people were doing. It was very joyful.
The policy issues we’ll be talking about–tech is in the news with antitrust changes and challenges. There are privacy issues. Certainly, the distribution channel in terms of supply chain is on top of a lot of my members’ minds right now. I just read a Wall Street Journal article about how the profits of one foreign shipping company almost exceeded the combined profits in the same quarter of Amazon and UPS. I found that amazing. We’re pushing to get rid of that shipping antitrust exception. No one knows why it exists. The Justice Department is trying to get rid of it. They’re right up there with Major League Baseball as far as having one of the only antitrust exemptions. President Biden just announced that he and the administration are supporting legislation around changing how the shippers are regulated. There’s so much going on in supply chain. That’s a big subject.
Obviously antitrust and privacy. Some of the private litigation you mentioned–we try to stay out of it. First of all, I don’t know if the companies want it. I don’t know if maybe journalists do. But we’re Switzerland there. We always do get opposing sides among the people that support us. There are a lot of issues going on in Congress, to put it mildly, and some of these same discussions are going on in Europe. One of them is about how Europe and the U.S. are going to have to work together. At the last physical CES in 2020, I had three U.S. cabinet secretaries in a meeting with five European cabinet ministers. That was the subject of discussion — AI, privacy, how we can work together. There’s a lot at stake in the future, not just economically, but for our liberty and democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of association, things like that.
VentureBeat: It feels like people are looking to these big companies for futuristic things like the metaverse now as well.
Shapiro: The metaverse! So, Meta is an exhibitor. The company formerly known as Facebook. We’re having some panel sessions on that. We have something called Beyond Games: The Metaverse. We have Learning in a Virtual World. We have something called Your Office Is In the Metaverse. We have three panel sessions on that in terms of conferences.
VentureBeat: Moving into the realm of science fiction.
Shapiro: Well, everything starts as science fiction. I was a big science fiction fan growing up, and that’s why I love CES. We have some non-traditional areas of the show as well. We have a lot going on with NFTs, the digital assets industry, ICOs, blockchain technologies. We have a whole thing focused on food with Impossible Foods, Beyond Honeycomb, technologies and robotics companies. John Deere is there. Companies like Procter and Gamble. Sierra Space, which is supplying the space shuttle to NASA. Of course there’s the big C-space area, where we have all the platforms there, CMOs from around the world, even outside of tech.
Health and wellness, the Abbott keynote, that’s big. The first health care keynote. That’s such a big area given what’s happened around the world. And of course my favorite, if I’m allowed to say this, but it’s the startup area, Eureka Park. We have startups from all around the world. That’s a big deal. They keep coming in.
VentureBeat: Are there any things that just won’t happen because of the way the show has changed? Or do you still have a bit of everything here?
Shapiro: We have a staffing shortage. In 2020 we had our last big physical event. I thought we did a great job. It was a great event. A lot of optimism and fun. Then COVID came along. We cut our staff, cut our expenses. We had to shift everyone to digital, which was a whole different set of skills. Now we’re doing physical and digital and dealing with COVID. We’re a little stretched, to be honest. We’re focusing on things we’ve never had to focus on before, and we’re also trying to do two events.
This is a hot subject in my world, in trade shows. It’s just difficult. We’re trying to do it all with a staff like every other staff in the country, which is trying to deal with COVID and kids who are often staying home from school. Another reason we’ll be down is because every company has people that are not vaccinated, or who are COVID-concerned and don’t want to travel. There’s a lot of issues now as we try to get back to where we were. Some companies might have lost the person who did the meetings and trade shows. I’ve heard from a couple of companies, that’s why they can’t exhibit. They just don’t have the staff who know what to do.
We had our Hall of Fame event in New York, and our CES unveil there. For a lot of the east coast reporters, it was their first event. They started out where they’re all wearing masks, and then as we had the after-dinner reception, the cocktail party or whatever, it’s a big change. But they got more comfortable very quickly. It’s up to people and the rules, the local rules. In Amsterdam no one was wearing masks at all. The only requirement was on public transportation. In Paris, everyone was wearing masks. In New York we had the most sensitive audience of people who hadn’t gone out.
We’ll see. We’ve had a lot of events at our Innovation House in Washington, next to the House of Representatives. It’s just a matter of people’s comfort. With boosters available to everyone now, I think we’re in good shape.
VentureBeat: Do you still have your normal security contingent? Given that you have some extra things to enforce, have you had to beef that up?
Shapiro: Our focus on physical security, putting aside the pandemic, has been pretty robust. We work with federal officials. We don’t talk about it a lot, but we’re conscious. We’re not reducing anything we’re doing in that area.
COVID is a different layer on there, given the different locations and approach. At registration, to get your badge, you’ll have to show your vaccination. Anyone with a badge holder and a badge, we know you’re good. We’re also giving out little stickers that are red-green-yellow. You can put one on your badge if you want, and that indicates the level of–red means elbow bump at the most. Yellow might be a handshake. Green might be a hug, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.
VentureBeat: I’m curious about what you thought of the infrastructure bill and what’s in there for tech. Is there more that you want in other bills that are coming?
Shapiro: We don’t take a position on government spending that affects our industry, so we didn’t take a position there. There’s a lot in there for broadband. I think that’s good, because the pandemic has shown that broadband is important to everyone in the country, especially in rural areas. I was secretly happy for it. I’ve said some nice things about it, probably.
I’m a little concerned, because in the original Obama broadband project, they spent more than a billion dollars and they got a few thousand people connected to broadband. It was absurd. I hope it’s not that level of waste. I’m also concerned that it’s encouraging municipalities to create their own broadband, which has been a dismal failure everywhere that it’s been done in the United States. It’s a lot of money going out there. I would have felt better if it was just a credit to pay for broadband for people who don’t have it. That would be so much easier.
In terms of the other things, as an American it felt good that we’re investing in something. As someone who works in Washington supporting the group that put the whole deal together, the No Labels, Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress–we were one of the earliest people in No Labels, and I’m part of their leadership. We’re very proud that we got Republicans and Democrats to agree on something, and that’s how it got through Congress, which is what I believe is important for our country, to have bipartisan support for things.
VentureBeat: We were talking about the CHIPS act last night, potentially having $52 billion go into bringing chipmaking back to the United States.
Shapiro: Yeah, I had lunch with Brian Toohey, the president of SIA, a couple of weeks ago. He was pretty proud of that. We were quiet on that one. Again, we don’t take a position–all the chip companies are members of ours, but we recognize that as a fundamental position of our organization, we think that the national debt is a threat to our economy and to the health of the technology industry. We’re not going to be asking for money to be spent on us. We would support anything bipartisan, even raising taxes, if it helps lower the debt.
Having said that, I wouldn’t say this is one of my most successful things. We’ve taken that position for 15 years now and the debt has tripled. We’re not successful. On the other hand, it does give us some principled basis that people understand. I’ve been yelled at by members of Congress for not advocating money for our industry or supporting different policies. But it allows us to focus on what we think is important. And we do express concerns about the debt and deficit.
I was pretty vocal on the last package that went through Congress and encouraged–it’s led to the inflationary pressures and the lack of workers we see now. There’s no question about that. I’ve been pretty vocal saying inflation is not–here’s an angle I haven’t talked about with the press a lot. But I have published on it. Inflation is real. I’ve been saying it’s not transitory since the beginning. It’s definitely transitory. It’s out there and it’s real. That’s the advantage of living outside the Beltway. You see it firsthand.
There’s only two ways to combat inflation. One is to raise interest rates, which is harmful to businesses obviously, and also makes our deficit much worse, because we pay more on our debt. Interest has to be paid. There’s no discretion. But the other alternative is greater productivity, and greater productivity comes from technology. Technology and a skilled workforce, both of which we support.
VentureBeat: It feels like attacking the shortage is also going to provide a solution, attacking all the electronics shortages.
Shapiro: That’s an interesting thing. The fact that there’s shortages is something I’ve never dealt with in my career. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Average selling prices got higher. Obviously, we don’t take a position on pricing at all for antitrust reasons. But it’s weird. I’ve never heard of it before. The only time prices are high is for a new category of products, and then there’s competition and chips get more broadly distributed, so prices get lower. This has been weird. There are definitely concerns about product shortages in key areas. It’s out there.
VentureBeat: I know you don’t want to put a number on it, but if I had to guess that maybe half as many people might show for CES compared to the usual, would that be in the realm of correct?
Shapiro: Give or take, that’s probably correct. I don’t know. Even in normal years we’re always wrong in what we say, so what we started saying was, it will be over a certain number. But we have an independent audit, and that’s when the number comes out.
VentureBeat: Would it be fair to see you’re seeing some accelerating registrations now, though?
Shapiro: Oh, absolutely. You can’t 500 exhibitors in a month or so and not have accelerating registrations. The exhibitors themselves have to register. We’re getting 1,700 or 1,800 press registered. That’s pretty amazing. We had 1,000 press register for our two conferences yesterday. Now, a lot of those people won’t come, because there are global issues. But the interest is high. Companies are excited.
Not every company will be there, again, especially some of the Asian companies. Although the Japanese and Koreans are going to be there. We announced Samsung’s keynote. We have people like Hyundai. What will happen with different countries, we don’t know. It’s impossible to predict at this point. It could go either way. But in terms of exhibitors, I’ve never seen so much momentum. I was talking to the guy who runs the health conference. In the last month so many companies have signed up that it’s overwhelming.
I think the booster announcement will make a difference. The booster gives you a new confidence. Travel is running very well. Other shows are being held successfully. But generally, I think your 50 percent attendance number is pretty accurate to what other shows have had. That’s not surprising. One big surprise, though, is that one of three registrants right now is international. A lot of that is Canada and Mexico. But it’s a high number for registration.
VentureBeat: It’s good to have you back.
Shapiro: It’s good to be back. It’s good to be talking. I’m enjoying these conversations a lot more than I did last year. For as much as we put into our digital event — it demonstrated that we could do a lot — there was no serendipity there. There weren’t the human relationships. We tried, but we’re excited to get back face to face.