What CES 2022 Says About the Future of Trade Shows

We discuss the possibility of new safety protocols, increased emphasis on digital options, and whether or not the massive trade show crowds will return.
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The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) recently made a significant announcement that could set the stage for trade shows & conferences in 2022 and beyond. For CES 2022, all attendees must show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before they are allowed into the event. The CTA says it may also allow a positive antibody test to enter, and might modify protocols as the event nears. Still, as of right now, all attendees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This has tremendous implications for the future of trade shows.

“Based on today’s science, we understand vaccines offer us the best hope for stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA, said in a release. “We all play a part in ending the pandemic through encouraging vaccinations and implementing the right safety protocols. We are taking on our responsibility by requiring proof of vaccination to attend CES 2022 in Las Vegas.”

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Event safety means something different now

The trade show industry has always placed a premium on attendee safety. Whether that meant extra security personnel, bag checks at the door, or facial recognition scanners throughout an exhibit hall, organizers have gone to great lengths to ensure the wellbeing of exhibitors and attendees.

In the past, event safety mainly focused exclusively on security. Today, the concept has evolved to include the health and wellness of all attendees. Look no further than the recent Aviation Week MRO 2021 as an example. Some noticeable safety features at that show included wider aisles to assist with social distancing, mandated mask-wearing, temperature checks at the entrances, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the hall and at nearly every exhibit. Also, there was no handshaking as people approached exhibits, and health and safety signage was prevalent throughout the convention center and show floor.

While we expect event aisles to shrink back to pre-pandemic size (that show floor space is just too valuable), many of these other changes are likely to stick around. Having hand sanitizer readily available makes too much sense, especially for trade shows and events that take place during cold and flu season. Health and safety signage isn’t going anywhere. Mask mandates will fade but expect a significant number to continue to don protective gear in crowded situations. Also, it will take a while before people become comfortable shaking hands again.

This focus on health and wellbeing will impact trade show displays, as well. We already mentioned how every booth will include a hand sanitizer dispenser. Exhibits will also be more spacious and include more expansive meeting areas where conversations can comfortably and safely occur. The idea of these brand spaces is to combine health and safety protocols in an eye-catching atmosphere that feels inviting and exciting. It’s a challenge that The Trade Group is ready to meet.

In-person events take center stage, but with a digital component

Traditionally, CES is one of the largest trade shows in North America. In 2020, CES had 171,268 attendees and 4,419 exhibitors spread across a massive 2.9 million net square feet of Las Vegas exhibit space. The 2021 CES had zero in-person attendees across zero net square feet of exhibit space. However, there were around 1,000 exhibitors, and more than 150,000 people attended – virtually.

Last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CES went completely virtual. According to several reviews, the transition was mostly successful. However, there was one glaring absence. A WIRED article analyzing the event put it best, “One of the most exciting parts of CES has been finding a weird product in some back corner of the giant expo hall and learning about something new through pure chance. At a virtual CES, that’s a virtual impossibility.”

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The in-person experience is a crucial aspect of trade shows that digital options, no matter how carefully conceptualized and crafted, cannot replicate. That’s not to diminish the importance of virtual exhibits. Having a digital opportunity broadens the reach of a trade show to attendees who would not, or could not, otherwise attend. Even before the pandemic, hybrid events were becoming an industry standard. CES 2022 is not scrapping the virtual element entirely. There will be a digital event that runs in parallel with the in-person program.

So, developing a virtual trade show booth as part of your exhibiting planning is essential. However, the CTA wants to emphasize the in-person aspect and will go great lengths to ensure that CES 2022 goes off safely and successfully for exhibitors and attendees. Expect this to be true for the majority of trade shows throughout 2022 and beyond.

Will the massive trade show crowds return, and do we really want them back?

While it’s too early to predict how many people will attend CES 2022, there are signs that the crowds at most trade shows will be smaller than before the pandemic, at least for a while. This is illustrated in a recent Wall Street Journal article through a joint event held by three apparel-industry trade shows, Womenswear in Nevada, Magic Pop-Up, and Off price. In early 2020, those shows drew about 55,000 total attendees; in 2021, the total attendance was around 5,000. However, the organizers were pleased with the turnout.

If someone goes through the effort of attending an event in 2021/2022, that person believes the show is valuable. For the next few years, there are not going to be many window-shopping attendees. Instead, the vast majority of trade show attendees will be there on a mission, either to make a deal or discover something new. These smaller crowds will likely turn out to be very beneficial to exhibitors. Are you as excited as we are about the return of events and trade shows? What do you think about the future of trade shows?

For more on our thoughts about the future of trade shows and to discover how our creative trade show displays can help you stay on the cutting edge, contact us here or give The Trade Group a call at 800-343-2005.

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