GSMA struggles to justify MWC's physical existence

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, it was possible at the last Mobile World Congress in 2019 to watch a morning keynote from the comfort of your hotel bed. That was a convenience for attendees whose main reason for travel was to indulge in some late-night Barcelonan bacchanalia – aka networking – but it somewhat undermined the need for a physical show. Add a pandemic and make everything available online and that need has perhaps disappeared entirely.

Even the show's organizers today had to admit that most "attendees" in 2021 will be there only in spirit, as registrants on a video link. "We really don't know," said John Hoffman, the CEO of the GSMA, when discussing visitor numbers during a press conference. "It is complicated, but we are very confident that 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 people will attend MWC21 in person, and virtually, watching us online, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands."

Tumbleweed at the Fira.
Tumbleweed at the Fira.

MWC was abruptly cancelled last year after most important exhibitors and a few big service providers were scared off by coronavirus. When the GSMA subsequently postponed this year's event to late June, from its normal slot in late February, it must have hoped the pandemic would by now have ended. Unfortunately, new variants are raging in the world's biggest countries, vaccine procurement has been disastrous in the European Union and government restrictions on free movement are still in force. Once again, the biggest exhibitors have withdrawn. Yet the GSMA is pressing on regardless.

It can hardly be blamed. MWC Barcelona and various satellite events are the telecom association's main source of revenues. The cancellation of the 2020 event blew such a big hole in sales that job cuts soon followed. Nor would it be fair to accuse the GSMA of irresponsibility this year (although some media outlets have done just that). It has invested heavily in health and safety facilities for MWC21. And no one should kid themselves that coronavirus will share the fate of smallpox. With its future variants, it looks here to stay. The choice is between perennial curbs on movement and a greater tolerance of risk.

Permanently weakened

The real worry for the GSMA is that an appetite for business travel and monster events has been permanently weakened. Pre-pandemic, the GSMA was used to hosting in excess of 100,000 visitors in Barcelona. Attracting just one-third of that number this year would be some achievement. The organizers appear to have steeled themselves for a big dip in 2021 but clearly hope 2022 will bring a return to normality.

The dilemma is that a smooth-running and highly successful online event in late June could make regular attendees think any future travel to Barcelona is an unnecessary expense. Mats Granryd, the GSMA's director general, was probably right when he talked about "the power of meeting people physically" at today's press conference. "In any business dealings, you need to build trust," he said. "The only way of doing that is to physically meet up." But company accountants, used to measuring the impact of the Catalonian shindig on profits, have different priorities. So, probably, do shareholders.

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The best PR for the GSMA would have been if Ericsson had last year blamed a dip in revenues on the MWC's cancellation and its inability to get sloshed with clients in Barcelona. What actually happened at the Swedish equipment maker was higher sales, a 60% surge in net profit and zero mention in financial results of MWC. Would results have been even better if MWC had gone ahead? Probably not. Ericsson was quick to cancel this year despite all the GSMA's safety measures.

Unfortunately for show organizers, telecom operators need to buy equipment and software whether or not they can shake hands with their suppliers. Granryd insisted the real dealmakers would still travel this year. "Previously, many companies have sent 200 or 300 participants. Now it might be five. But it's the right five people coming," he said in answer to questions. Yet their cancellations suggest the big vendors reckon there will be nobody worth meeting.

Perhaps humans' desire to share the same bowl of pimientos de Padron will override future concerns about health and profitability. In the short term, many people will not be able to travel even if they are prepared to be permanently masked up in the summer heat, as Spanish authorities require – not, that is, unless they accept long quarantines on their return home and the insertion of cotton swabs into their nostrils every few hours.

The GSMA's best hope is that locals can make up some of the international deficit. It is offering 30,000 tickets to Spanish companies outside but interested in telecom for just €21/$25.60 (normally they cost about €700/$854 apiece) each and says it will donate €300,000 ($366,000) to Spanish vaccination efforts if the target is realized. Desperate times.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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