Industry casting doubt on GSMA plans for live MWC Barcelona

Industry casting doubt on GSMA’s plans for live MWC Barcelona

13 January 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The GSMA, the mobile industry’s trade association, is fighting a battle to ensure its giant exhibition and conference takes place in Barcelona — but the industry is looking increasingly sceptical.

The GSMA has moved Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona to the end of June, hoping the pandemic will have subsided enough for the event to run.

One international marketing consultant told Capacity, on the promise of anonymity: “From my perspective, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the event can go ahead in-person unless vaccination efforts around the world hit scale within a month — which obviously isn’t going to happen.”

The GSMA told Capacity: “MWC21 is taking place on 28 June – 1 July 2021 in Barcelona, and we are planning boldly but cautiously for an in-person event.” But it added that it “continues to monitor global circumstances, seeking expert advice and collaborating as information emerges in this dynamic situation. The health and safety of our exhibitors, attendees, staff and the people of Barcelona remain our top priority.”

One major international operator said: “MWC’s an important event, for us and for the industry, so we’re carrying on with our MWC planning as before.”

Another grumbled: “Yes we plan to be there at present. Stall holders sign a contract a year in advance so they are already locked in.”

But this company’s official, again speaking on the basis of anonymity, asked: “Whether that will be face-to-face is a big question, but the GSMA has built a good online platform and you’ll see it has some security guidelines in place for Shanghai to keep people safe.”

The GSMA has moved MWC Shanghai, which used to take place in the middle of the year, to the slot that was occupied by MWC Barcelona until 2019. The association, which represents almost all operators and vendors in the mobile industry, cancelled last year’s Barcelona event at short notice after notable exhibitors, including Ericsson, pulled out. The last live event in Barcelona attracted more than 100,000 people.

Ericsson told Capacity this week: “Ericsson’s top priority is the health and safety of our employees, customers and other stakeholders. For Mobile World Congress 2021 in Barcelona, Ericsson has signed up for our regular space in Hall 2 of La Fira, and plan accordingly. Should there be indications that the global pandemic remains a risk factor as we get closer to the event, we independently review our decision.”

The GSMA said: “We will incorporate the latest guidance, regulations and technologies to create a touchless environment in which collaboration, networking and deal-making can thrive.”

That is the phraseology the organisation was using in late January and early February 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic had spread from Wuhan in China and was appearing in the Italian Alps and other places around the world.

An operator said: “The Covid situation across the UK and Europe changes daily so it’s hard to predict what will happen. In terms of the show itself, it’s really down to the GSMA and we’ll take their guidance accordingly as they’ll be actively looking at all the important aspects, from logistics to travel to health and safety, and so on.”

Another marketing consultant said, regretfully: “The folks I am talking to desperately want to have the ability to go and have the meetings and build the momentum that they always have in the past but are not counting on going at all because of the pandemic.”

An equipment vendor said, non-attributably: “Our team managing MWC activities tells me that we are taking a positive attitude towards participating, but that participation is not 100% confirmed at this point.”

Another consultant said: “There isn’t enough information on which to make a decision — that’s not the GSMA’s fault, obviously. On that basis, I can’t imagine more than a handful having any kind of a presence at a physical event.”

An operator noted: “They have told us it will happen in person, but I think reading between the lines they are planning for a range of scenarios.”

But the cancellation of last year’s MWC Barcelona is giving people permission to question the whole basis of giant events. One person told us: “The further challenge is that everyone’s marketing and T&E [travel and entertainment] actuals were so low in 2020. CFOs are pushing as to whether all of the expenses associated with conferences like MWC are really necessary.”

The same person said: “To small to mid-cap companies around the world, MWC is a critical catalyst to driving sales funnels and growing the business. But making that business case internally for MWC21 is going to be very difficult for marketing and sales organisations — more so than at any other time.”

Another, with a wide range of international clients, said: “Only one of our 15 or so telecoms clients has actively withdrawn their participation from MWC 21, but many others simply don’t know what to do.”

One commented sceptically: “There is going to be immense pressure on what precisely is the return on investment for these kinds of events.”

A UK-based person told Capacity: “If you think about it the UK government is saying all adults will be offered a vaccine by autumn. That could be as late as November, five months after the event is due to take place, and the UK is relatively advanced in its vaccination rollout.”

Another, based in the US, said: “We have seen some online events very well received towards the end of 2020, so it’s not all on the vaccination — a show, in some form, can still go on. But, sadly, it’s nothing like we were hoping (and praying) for.”

The Shanghai event is due to run on 23-25 February, and China has already run many in-person conferences. The official number of Covid-19 deaths in China since the start of 2020 until this week is 4,792. That compares with 4,406 who died of the disease in the US yesterday alone.