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Will the pandemic change convention-going permanently?

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Free masks are provided as a sign that reminds attendees to keep their masks on is on display at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Day 1 of CES 2022, January 5, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

At CES 2022, free masks are provided, as well as stickers indicating how much touch attendants are comfortable with. Attendance is down considerably this year with the spread of omicron. Alex Wong via Getty Images

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One of the world’s biggest gadget conventions is happening right now, although it’s a lot smaller than it used to be. CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, used to bring around 170,000 people to Las Vegas.

But with companies like Google, Intel and Amazon dialing back their participation because of omicron, foot traffic is down considerably. It’s a rocky start to 2022 for the convention industry.

Tech lovers worried about omicron can attend CES virtually. Event organizer Jean Foster said the online version even has a substitute for those awkward networking receptions: a platform called Mingle.

“People can chat about specific topics, and it’s based on profile and recommendations for people coming together,” she said.

Of course, that means no riding John Deere’s fully autonomous tractor or trying out other gadgets. And the more conventions go digital, the more CES misses out on its biggest source of revenue: “The space that exhibitors rent from us,” Foster said.

So will the ongoing pandemic lead companies to cut travel budgets permanently?

The toolmaking company Hilti used to attend 30 trade shows a year. Now, that’s down to 16. But it’s not abandoning the strategy completely, marketing VP Erik Mikysa said.

“We fully intend to have a big presence at trade shows,” he said.

In two weeks, Mikysa will be in Las Vegas for the World of Concrete. He said Hilti is sending more employees there than ever before.

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