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MWC expects just 50k visitors this year after COVID rout

But there is cause for optimism with major exhibitors returning for the 2022 show after last year's cancellations.

Iain Morris

February 10, 2022

4 Min Read
MWC expects just 50k visitors this year after COVID rout

There was an excruciating moment at the start of the GSM Association's press conference about Mobile World Congress (MWC) where Mats Granryd's face mask seemed to get snagged on his ear, like a child's coat on a doorknob, and it had to be helped off by some lackey. Social distancing and virus transfer were instantly forgotten as the organization's director general was tortuously unmasked on stage. Minutes later, he and a bare-mouthed John Hoffman, the GSMA's CEO, were spraying their lung particles in the direction of the audience.

It would have seemed a ridiculous pantomime to anyone time-travelling to the conference from 2019, when a late-February MWC last took place in Barcelona. Back then, the world's biggest telecom tradeshow waved about 109,000 visitors through its doors. Then COVID-19 struck, and the event was ultimately cancelled – after some GSMA dithering – in 2020. At last year's show, delayed to June, just 20,000 people made the trip. Most were locals, many of them wielding heavily discounted passes.

But MWC is back, was the message the organizers wanted to convey from Barcelona this morning. Whether or not Granryd and Hoffman genuinely believed it, a pointless display of pre-speech mask-wearing was necessary to prove to fidgety, rule-loving Spanish (or is that Catalan?) authorities that MWC will follow all the correct protocols and be as virus-free as a recently disinfected work surface.

Figure 1: MWC attendance over the years (Source: GSMA) (Note: Figure for 2022 is the midpoint of the GSMA's latest estimate) (Source: GSMA)
(Note: Figure for 2022 is the midpoint of the GSMA's latest estimate)

The only thing reporters wanted to know was if regular attendees are persuaded to travel, and the answer seems to be in doubt. Asked that question (and hardly any others) after his MWC-matters routine with Granryd, Hoffman reckoned between 40,000 and 60,000 people will bother. Call it 50,000, for midpoint convenience, and the GSMA is looking at a drop of nearly 60,000 on the 2019 figure.

It must also hope that 50,000 isn't a huge overestimate, and Hoffman has previous form. Last year, he thought MWC would attract about 40,000 people in the run-up to the June show. If the actual turnout back then is any guide this year, the GSMA could be looking at fewer than 30,000 attendees.

Organizers can probably afford to be optimistic, though. The big exhibitors (the likes of Ericsson and Nokia) are back in force after deciding that online participation was good enough in 2021. All told, more than 1,500 exhibitors have registered for the physical event, according to Granryd, and there have been very few high-profile withdrawals.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

This correspondent registered last year but eventually decided against travelling – largely because wandering around the zombified shell of the Fira on the lookout for signs of life seemed like a bad use of several days in June. This year, he can enthusiastically report that dozens of companies have been in touch about meeting up. In person. Maybe even with a fist bump or handshake involved.

And Barcelona seems to need it as much as the shellshocked GSMA. The event, apparently, has contributed €5.3 billion to the local economy since 2005, Hoffman was eager to point out this morning. However accurate that number is, nobody would have been more upset over the last two years than local restaurateurs, bar owners and other hospitality venues that can usually rely on MWC for a steady stream of business as winter turns to spring.

A few Catalan bigwigs from outside telecom were invited to the front earlier today, dutifully masked alongside Granryd and Hoffman. Not too many, though, because "social distancing does not allow us to bring everyone on stage," Hoffman told the dozens seated next to one another in the audience. Expect a lot more of this nonsense come the show.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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