The GSMA has cancelled Mobile World Congress 2020 amid escalating concerns about the international outbreak of coronavirus.
While the GSMA implemented a number of health and safety measures aimed at improving biosecurity – including a ‘no handshake’ policy and monitoring the temperatures of attendees - the body’s chief executive John Hoffman acknowledged that ultimately the threat posed by the virus has made it “impossible” to host the event.
Mobile World Congress is the largest trade event in the telecoms industry, and this year’s event was anticipating over 100,000 attendees from over 200 countries. While its name has changed since its inauguration in 1987, this is the first time in the event’s history that it has been cancelled. The GSMA has stated that it will continue to work with its host city partners on MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions.
Over the past few weeks, a number of high profile exhibitors such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, LG and Nokia had withdrawn from the event, citing fears that they could not guarantee the health of their employees under the circumstances. Other companies, including Huawei and Samsung, had planned to press ahead with a scaled-back presence in light of the lower-than-expected attendee list.
At the time of writing, Spain has only two confirmed cases of coronavirus – a fact which has proven problematic for the not-for-profit GSMA. Taken together with the event’s importance to Barcelona’s economy – it accounts for 1% of the city’s annual revenue and creates 14,000 temporary jobs – Spain’s authorities were happy for the event to proceed as planned.
This has effectively forced the GSMA’s hand; from a public health perspective, it was clearly ill-advised to continue with the show, but since the Spanish government would not declare a medical emergency, the GSMA will be unable to make up for its lost revenue through insurance.
The cancellation is likely to hit smaller businesses the hardest since the show offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with potential investors and partners. However, larger businesses will lament the loss of public relations opportunities offered by MWC, with Huawei in particular smarting after negative media coverage in 2019 led to dwindling international deals. Chinese companies will also face an uphill public relations struggle given the country’s status as the epicentre of the coronavirus.
It remains to be seen how this perception will affect MWC Shanghai, which takes place from late June, but the cancellation of this year’s MWC Barcelona will likely increase anticipation for next year’s edition.