Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is normally a human version of pinball, as more than 100,000 visitors ricochet off cluttered stands and one another while attempting to cross ground. This year, with just 20,000 attendees, the arcade game fell mainly silent. But any collisions with fellow MWCers would probably have elicited a Spanish or Catalonian apology.
Data shared with Light Reading by the GSM Association, which organizes the giant event, shows that about three-quarters of visitors were from Spain. That marks a sharp increase on the figure for 2019, when just 30% of attendees did not have to cross a national border on their way to MWC. Last year's show was canceled during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We expected this shift given global circumstances and various travel restrictions," said a spokesperson for the GSMA by email. "We are also grateful for the support of so many Spanish businesses. Our event was richer for their contribution and the buzz around startups in Spain was palpable."
The update means there was a big drop-off in the number of visitors from Spain, but the slump in international visitors was even greater. Back in 2019, MWC played host to 109,000 attendees, according to data the GSMA previously shared. Based on the breakdown the organization has provided, that means roughly 32,700 people traveled from within Spain, and 76,300 from another country. This year, the number of Spanish visitors dropped to 15,000, and as few as 5,000 came from elsewhere.
While the GSMA would have been expecting what it calls a "shift," it had obviously hoped for a better turnout. In the run-up to the event, John Hoffman, the GSMA's CEO, had targeted between 30,000 and 50,000 attendees, despite the circumstances. To boost numbers, the organization had also made 30,000 tickets available to Spanish companies in sectors adjacent to telecom for just €21 (about $25) each, down from the normal price of €699 (about $830).
Hoffman's target always looked optimistic after the withdrawal of so many big exhibitors in the past few weeks. Ericsson, which normally commands one of MWC's largest stands, started the ball rolling when it backed out in March. It was soon followed by others including Cisco, Intel and Nokia.
A few major operators also chose not to send employees to this year's event. Deutsche Telekom, which usually holds a physical press conference at its large Hall 3 booth, provided updates through its virtual platform this year instead. CEO Timotheus Höttges and Claudia Nemat, Deutsche Telekom's technology boss, took part in MWC by video link only.
The withdrawals and availability of online platforms clearly sapped enthusiasm for traveling to Barcelona. Other regular attendees appear to have stayed away due to lingering concern about coronavirus or simply because of government-imposed travel restrictions, including orders to quarantine on return home from another country.
The GSMA will obviously be hoping that MWC bounces back in 2022, when the event is scheduled for its normal slot in late February and early March, after being delayed until June this year. One risk is that new COVID-19 variants persuade governments to maintain lockdowns and other restrictions.
An even more troubling one, from the GSMA's perspective, is that developments in 2020 and 2021 have permanently weakened the appetite for a physical MWC. Organizations, after all, have been forced to adapt to a world without trade shows, just as they have accepted that many employees will never return to an office five days a week. Despite MWC's cancellation in 2020, Ericsson had one of its best years in recent memory, with sales rising 5%, on a like-for-like basis, and net profit up nearly tenfold.
The fall in MWC attendee numbers this year seems bound to hurt the GSMA, which derives most of its income from events. The damage would be even greater if most of the Spanish attendees came from businesses that took advantage of the €21 offer. Organizers had promised to donate €300,000 ($355,795) to Spanish vaccination efforts if they managed to sell all 30,000 tickets priced at this level – a target that was evidently missed.
Asked if would still make the donation, the GSMA responded: "Whilst the uptake of the community pass did not reach the intended 30,000 passes, the organization remains committed to contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading