Is It Time for Big In-Person Events Again? Organizers Are Divided

Some big events are delaying their return to in-person gatherings, but the organizers of CES, the Winter Olympics and the Australian Open have decided it’s time to gather in person again.

After going virtual last year, CES, a mega-conference in Las Vegas that’s the traditional launchpad for many of the tech industry’s latest gadgets, is trying to make a comeback. The trade show kicks off on Wednesday, with an estimated 2,200 exhibitors set to show up in person.

But with the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus surging, scores of major tech companies are still presenting mostly virtually.

It’s a sign that decisions to hold big in-person events at this phase of the pandemic remain far from clear-cut, the DealBook newsletter reports. Yet the organizers of CES — like those of the Winter Olympics and the Australian Open, which are set to begin soon — have decided it’s time to gather in person again.

Canceling the show would “hurt thousands of smaller companies, entrepreneurs and innovators” who depend on the show to introduce their products, Gary Shapiro, the chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that organizes CES, wrote in an opinion column in The Las Vegas Review-Journal. (The conference is also important for Las Vegas, which reaped an estimated $291 million from spending tied to it in 2020.) Mr. Shapiro noted that the conference had embraced pandemic protections like requiring attendees to be fully vaccinated and masked while on the show floor, and that testing was readily available.

But many large companies have chosen to attend remotely, including Amazon, AMD, AT&T, General Motors, Google, Intel, Lenovo, Meta, Nvidia, Pinterest, T-Mobile and Twitter. That will leave “big gaps on the show floor,” Mr. Shapiro said. And CES will end a day early, in what the organizers said was a concession to safety.

Other big events are delaying their return to in-person gatherings. Organizers of the Grammys are reportedly considering delaying this month’s music awards show, while the World Economic Forum postponed its annual confab in Davos, Switzerland, which was set to take place this month.

So is it safe to hold live in-person events again? Omicron cases appear to be less severe than cases from previous variants, and vaccines and new treatments are becoming available. More governments are also edging toward managing, not containing, the coronavirus, and are increasingly reluctant to reimpose restrictions. That could mean that a return to regular mass gatherings in some places may not be far-off.

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