While the Omicron variant has caused some delays in school and office re-openings, many events and meetings scheduled for early 2022 are still happening.
Has the Omicron variant thrown a monkey wrench into what had been looking like a slow but steady economic recovery for the $100 billion meetings and events industry? Even just a few months ago, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research’s Chief Economist Dr. Allen Shaw was predicting that the industry would get back to between 75% and 80% of 2019 levels in 2022 — and be back to 100% by this time next year.
But now, as the highly contagious Omicron has become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the U.S., some companies are rethinking plans to loosen their corporate travel policies, including whether they’ll allow travel to conferences and trade shows. Some venues, cities and regions also are once again considering instituting more stringent health and safety protocols. It’s starting to feel like 2020 all over again.
This time, however, many event organizers are going full steam ahead with their conference plans. In early December, as Omicron began to rip through the U.S. populace, Plant Based World North America went ahead with its 3,000-plus-attendee show at the Javits Center in New York. A few weeks later, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) drew more than 1,200 attendees to its Expo! Expo! Annual Meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Both had to cancel their in-person events last year.
While some did decide to go virtual for their January 2022 events — including JPMorgan Chase, which moved its in-person 40th Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference scheduled for Jan. 10–13 in San Francisco to a virtual format after some of its key corporate attendees dropped out — many other event and meeting organizers seem to be greeting the new year with more of a can-do-regardless-of-Omicron attitude. While the crowds may be smaller than they were pre-COVID, that’s OK. In fact, one of the top trends trade show organizers identified for 2022 is that event organizers need to focus more on attracting the right audience, not just a high head count.
Among the shows that are still, as of this writing, going on, is the National Retail Federation’s The Big Show. Scheduled to be held Jan. 16–18 at the Javits Center in New York, the show will have an abundance of protocols in place, from masking and self-tests to vaccine mandates.
But all eyes are on the really big show — the Consumer Electronics Show, known as CES, which historically brings hundreds of thousands of attendees to Las Vegas in January — it pulled in 171,268 attendees and 4,419 exhibitors in 2020, before going virtual last January. While CES likely will be a bit smaller as tech companies such as Amazon, Meta Platforms, Twitter and Pinterest have bowed out due to COVID concerns, as of Jan. 4, CTA had 2,200 exhibitors signed up. While this is only about half the usual number, it still is a sign that there are plenty of exhibitors eager to show off their latest wares. There also are expected to be plenty of attendees. CTA expects somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 will be willing to brave Omicron to learn about the latest gadgets and gizmos as they comply with mask-wearing, distancing and vaccination protocols. On Jan. 4, CTA announced it would be shortening the show by one day due to Omicron-related health concerns. There also will be a hybrid component for those who are unwilling or unable to come in person.
According to CNBC.com, there are approximately 45 other 5,000-plus-attendee shows scheduled to come to the Las Vegas Convention Center, where CES 2022 is being held, over the course of the year. Orange County Florida, home of another of the nation’s biggest event venues, the Orange County Convention Center, also hasn’t yet had any cancellations for its January 2022 shows.