Verdict Report: MWC
How the Coronavirus Killed Mobile World Congress
It took less than two weeks for the GSMA to go from firm reassurance that Mobile World Congress would go ahead, to calling the event off entirely due to the coronavirus. Lucy Ingham charts how mounting industry pressure led to such a dramatic turnaround
On 29 January, as the coronavirus infection rate hit 6,000 and the death toll climbed to 132, the organiser of Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona, the GSMA, was reassuring reporters that the event would still go ahead.
“The upcoming Mobile World Congress Barcelona event will proceed as planned,” a spokesperson told Reuters.
Less than two weeks later, on 12 February, the GSMA called off MWC entirely, saying it was “impossible” to continue.
The decision has likely led to eye-watering costs both for exhibitors and the GSMA itself, as while the organisation takes out insurance both for itself and those attending to show off new products, this only covers the spread of communicable diseases when travel restrictions have been put in place.
And while reports suggested the GSMA was lobbying the Spanish government to declare a health emergency, this did not occur.
So how did the GSMA find itself in such a position?
Coronavirus and MWC: The first signs of trouble
In late January, as the spread of the novel coronavirus hit international headlines, the technology and telecoms industries began to mutter concerns about what it could mean for Mobile World Congress.
While the event would, as usual, be taking place in Barcelona, Spain, it would feature attendees and exhibitors from across the globe, including many from China, one of the most important countries in the telecoms and tech space.
The fear was simple: as the novel coronavirus could be carried by people showing no symptoms, there was a risk that a small number of attendees – or even just one – could unwittingly carry the virus to the event, and spread it to others through handshakes and circulation around the conference.
This would then see the virus carried back to a host of different locations around the world, where it could end up spreading further. In a worse-case scenario, many feared, the Mobile World Congress would end up becoming a catalyst for the international spread of the coronavirus.
Initially, this concern seemed too radical to be entirely plausible, and while the GSMA said that it would provide additional medical support and sanitation products to minimise risk, it stressed that the event would go ahead and that registrations had not been impacted by coronavirus concerns.
However, on 31 January the World Health Organisation declared that the coronavirus outbreak now met the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and the GSMA was forced to issue a second statement.
This did not materially differ significantly from the first, although the organisation expanded on its list of coronavirus-fighting measures to include awareness building, increased cleaning and the availability of sanitisation products for staff, attendees and exhibitors. It reiterated its comments about registrations being unimpacted.
Meanwhile, chatter around Mobile World Congress and the coronavirus began to climb, particularly on social media. Suggestions of possible attendee cancellations began to be floated, although the idea of the entire event being ditched was largely dismissed as improbable.
“Suggestions of possible attendee cancellations began to be floated, although the idea of the entire event being ditched was largely dismissed as improbable.”
Then on 5 February – late on 4 February for those in the US – LG Electronics announced it was cancelling its attendance.
The South Korean company said that it had “decided to withdraw from exhibiting and participating” with “the safety of its employees, partners and customers foremost in mind”, adding that making the decision had removed “the risk of exposing hundreds of LG employees to international travel”.
Chinese phone manufacturer ZTE also called off its press conference on the same day, although stressed that it would still be attending the wider event.
The news spurred search traffic around MWC and the coronavirus to the highest levels yet and more than twice the previous record, made on 3 February. A number of major news sites also covered the topic for the first time, bringing the issue to a far greater pool of people.
GSMA however, maintained that the impact on the event had so far been “minimal” and stressed it was still going ahead.
Other companies backed this approach, with Huawei saying that it was “working with GSMA on preventative measures” and that health and safety was a “top priority”.
“Not a decision we have taken lightly”: The cascade begins
However, if anyone had thought LG’s decision to not attend at all would be a one-off – and if they did exist, they were certainly in the minority – they were sorely wrong.
In the next few days, a small but significant handful of companies also announced that they too were cancelling their attendance, each issuing a small but notable blow to the GSMA’s repeated reassurances that all was well.
Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson – one of the key contenders in the global 5G infrastructure battle – cancelled on 7 February, as did graphics heavyweight NVIDIA.
And in the process, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm used a phrase that would quickly become the catchphrase of MWC company cancellation announcements: “This is not a decision we have taken lightly.”
Over the following few days, more and more companies would also not take the decision lightly, but ultimately conclude that they too had to pull out.
Major names, including AT&T, Amazon, Cisco and McAfee had all cancelled by 11 February – the latter causing much mirth on social media over the fact that an antivirus company had had its promotional plans changed by a virus.
For less well-known brands in the technology space, cancelling also began to be a viable way to raise their public profile, with a host of smaller brands also issuing their own announcements on social media or via company blogs.
“For less well-known brands in the technology space, cancelling also began to be a viable way to raise their public profile.”
Meanwhile, the GSMA issued numerous updates to its coronavirus advice for Mobile World Congress, including a ban on travellers from China’s Hubei province, and a requirement that all travellers from the country had been outside China for at least 2 weeks before the event.
Companies including Huawei began flying executives into Europe early to begin a quarantine ahead of MWC, but industry speculation about the viability of the event began to climb sharply.
Then, on 12 February, the cancellations became a roar. Finnish hardware giant Nokia, Japanese electronics major Rakuten, and mobile heavyweight Vodafone all issued their own announcements, along with a host of other companies.
By lunchtime of 12 February, more than 40 different companies had announced they were pulling out, and social media was alive with speculation about whether the event would be called off altogether.
The GSMA has said little about the internal mood during this period, but a single crying emoji sent by an unnamed GSMA employee to a friend, who posted it on social media, seems to sum up the likely atmosphere.
Mobile World Congress and the coronavirus: From optimism to closure
At 1pm GMT on 12 February, the GSMA went into a meeting that was reportedly to decide if Mobile World Congress should be cancelled.
This followed reports earlier in the day that the GSMA had been attempting to get the Spanish government to declare a health emergency so that it could cancel and claim on its insurance.
However, 1pm came and went, and no announcement was made, leading some to conclude that the GSMA had decided to continue on the basis that it couldn’t afford to eat the cost of cancelling an event for 109,000 people without the backing of its insurers.
“The global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.”
But then, after much of the European media had knocked off for the night, the GSMA confirmed what many had been calling for over the previous days: Mobile World Congress was being cancelled because of the coronavirus.
“With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event,” said John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA.
“Our sympathies at this time are with those affected in China, and all around the world.”
Looking to 2021: The future of the GSMA and MWC
Whether the GSMA will be able to claw back some money from its insurers remains unclear, but it seems that the organisation considered going ahead to be the costliest option. And if nothing else, it may have dealt significant reputational damage – which cancelling appears not to have done.
One consistent comment throughout all the official statements is that companies are committed to attending MWC 2021, despite the cancellations this year.
“We are already looking forward to the next MWC,” said Deutsche Telekom in its tweeted statement.
“We look forward to coming back again in full force next year,” agreed Ran Avrahamy, CMO of AppsFlyer.
“We look forward to attending the next Mobile World Congress as one of the flagship events of the year for the communications and technology industries,” concluded Vodafone.
Mobile World Congress 2020 may have been defeated by the coronavirus, but the prognosis for 2021 and beyond is as healthy as ever.
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