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The forecast for in-person telecom events: Expect a busy Q4

Vaccination cards are finally making a different sort of ID possible again: conference badges. A telecom-industry calendar that's been bereft of in-person events now looks to feature a sizable number of US gatherings, especially in the fourth quarter.

But this trend won't do much for a third sort of ID, passports. While MWC Barcelona presses on even as high-profile exhibitors have backed out, other international tech conferences like IFA have had to cancel as countries outside the US continue to suffer from the pandemic and lag in vaccinations.

"The US is now opening up, finally. We've done the right things," said Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics. "When we look internationally, the situation is much, much more murky."

One reason conference organizers sound increasingly bullish on holding events in the States: One such gathering already went off without problems.

The Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) held its WISPAmerica conference in late April, drawing about 1,000 attendees to the Gaylord Texan Hotel in Grapevine, Texas.

"It was clear our community wanted to get together for sure, but we wanted to be sure we could pull it off," said Claude Aiken, WISPA president and CEO, in an email. "One of the big things that tipped us towards 'go' was the fact that many of our folks had priority access to the vaccine, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many did in fact take advantage of that."

Aiken said the event featured masking and social-distancing rules, extensive sanitizing and disinfection, and some programming moved outdoors to allow for better ventilation – a precaution now emphasized by the Centers for Disease Control.

"It really helps if you have a significant chunk of space to spread out and a venue that is willing to work with you," he wrote. "Be prepared for higher costs, particularly for food and beverage since individually wrapped food is more expensive than buffet options."

The Barcelona question

The next big telecom event to happen in person, MWC Barcelona, has struggled with exhibitor support since pushing back its 2021 event from early March to the end of June. BT, Cisco, Google, Intel and Microsoft pulled out early on, and more recently Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone said they would opt for a mostly-digital presence.

That's left a questionable business case for going to Barcelona.

"There aren't enough exhibitors remaining that it would be worth the travel time and expense for meetings – never mind potential exposure," wrote Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential.

"No, absolutely not," said Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst at Creative Strategies, about attending the Barcelona event. Although fully vaccinated, she noted that pandemic numbers remain elevated across much of Europe: "I'm not going to die, but that doesn't mean I'm not gonna get sick."

Show organizers GSMA still expect in-person attendance to top 30,000 with "thousands more" attending online, spokesperson Limsan Boulter wrote in an email. In 2019, MWC Barcelona drew more than 109,000 attendees.

Europe's other big tech event, IFA in Berlin, will not happen in early September after its organizers decided that "several key global health metrics did not move as fast in the right direction as had been hoped for." They opted not to stage a digital version of the trade show.

Both Greengart and Milanesi said virtual gatherings fell short of in-person events, especially in terms of demos. Greengart ticked off a list of problems with virtual events:

"I badly miss IRL [in real life] tech events for several reasons: it's hard to evaluate hardware products without getting hands-on at product launches, it's hard to uncover trends when you cannot survey a large group of firms at an expo, and I'm finding business development to be tricky without interpersonal – and sometimes serendipitous – interaction you get with people in venues, not on screens."

A busy fall schedule

The next telecom event of any size looks to be the Big 5G Event, to be hosted by Light Reading's parent firm Informa from August 31 to Sept. 2 in Denver – with a virtual program happening as well.

"We've been led by national, state and venue guidelines, as well as the sentiment coming from our community," emailed James Croissant, a senior producer at Informa Tech. "In March/April we ran a significant sentiment survey with our audiences which reinforced the desire and confidence of our market to return to physical events by the time of the show."

He said Informa expects to see a combined online and in-person attendance of 3,000-plus, compared to 1,500 IRL attendees at the 2019 show.

The Big 5G site's list of pandemic safety protocols stresses social distancing and sanitizing. Its venue, the Colorado Convention Center, notes in a PDF that it's upgraded its air filtration.

The Competitive Carriers Association plans to host its annual convention from September 20-22 in Phoenix, almost two years after its last major in-person event (disclosure: I moderated a panel at that Providence, Rhode Island, conference, in return for which CCA covered my travel costs).

That Washington, DC, group's planned pandemic protocols also emphasize social distancing and sanitizing surfaces; a statement provided from CCA president and CEO Steven K. Berry did not address vaccination status.

October could see serious increases to the frequent-flyer-mile balances of telecom travelers. The Wireless Infrastructure Association's Connect (X) 2021 will run from October 4 through 7 in Orlando after being pushed back from a planned early-August date. ACA Connects and the National Cable Television Cooperative's Independent Show will run the same dates in Minneapolis.

A week later, the National Association of Broadcasters' NAB Show will return to Vegas October 9 through 13, a change from its usual early-April time frame that the NAB announced last September. The event's list of health and safety measures notes improvements in ventilation at the Las Vegas Convention Center but not a vaccination requirement for attendance.

Another DC-based trade group will have its own gathering in Vegas two weeks afterwards when the Incompas Show runs from October 25 to 27 at the Cosmopolitan.

"Our fall show is very transactional," said Julia Strow, chief of staff with that association of broadband providers. "They're meeting, and they're doing business."

Strow said in an interview that Incompas was still developing its safety protocols for the show but would not make proof of vaccination one of them.

Incompas is, however, banking on taking advantage of late-October Vegas weather by hosting networking receptions outdoors: "We are planning for our closing party Tuesday night to be outdoors by the pool."

GSMA's MWC Los Angeles will take place on almost the same days, running from October 26 to 28. The trade group confirmed June 9 that its North American gathering would return live after being recast as a virtual event in 2020.

In the Before Times, the conference schedule usually eased up in November. But that was also a good time to start booking flights for MWC Barcelona; this year that month might once again require researching airfares to Spain. And for telecom-conference types to tackle another to-do for the first time since late 2019: reordering business cards.

— Rob Pegoraro, special to Light Reading. Follow him @robpegoraro.

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