Next week, executives from Chinese giant Huawei will begin a self-imposed 14-day quarantine to avoid turning the world’s biggest phone show into a coronavirus nightmare.
Over 100,000 people were expected to fly to Barcelona to attend the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade fair. But safety concerns for people at the event have caused businesses to pull out, downgrade their attendance or replace high-profile executives with lower-level European counterparts.
Huawei is among the companies trying to play it safe: employees attending MWC this year from China, including executives, presenters, and service staff will be quarantined outside of China for at least 14 days before the event.
Where these people are going to be stationed during that period is far from clear. According to the Catalonian authorities, hotels in Barcelona – where many of the MWC attendees plan to stay – have not been informed of any plans to be used as a quarantine zone.
Meanwhile, Huawei is positioning European staff to take over if the worst happens. “Over 12,000 people in Europe, and those who have not been in China or had contact with those who have, are expected to take a much more prominent role in all MWC events,” a spokesperson for Huawei says.
These new measures were released after LG, which maintains a large exhibition space at MWC despite its lack of consistent launches, became the first major company to boycott the event. Management cited concerns over the safety of its staff as the virus continues to spread outside China.
In a statement, LG said it would remove the “risk of exposing hundreds of LG employees to international travel which has already become more restrictive as the virus continues to spread across borders”.
Aside from Huawei, the biggest draw to the event is Samsung, which confirmed on Wednesday that it still plans to attend MWC for now. But as other companies watch the situation develop, they are opting to downgrade their presence at the conference.
Shenzhen-based ZTE, which makes smartphones and wireless networking equipment, has already cancelled its MWC press conference, though it says it will still send a delegation to Barcelona.
It is understood that Xiaomi has decided not to bring Chinese press to the conference at all. The company told Bloomberg that it was sending its delegates to Barcelona “as soon as possible” and will make necessary adjustments accordingly.
Chinese phone manufacturer Oppo said it is proceeding with MWC as planned, taking “all precautions to ensure the safety of its staff, media and partners”. It is not clear what such precautions could be.
Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester, estimates that around 6,000 to 7,000 attendees from Chinese companies could already have dropped out of attending the conference so far – a noticeable fall, but not necessarily a disaster for a conference that expects to draw over 109,000 attendees.
The problem will be compounded if other attendees decide to avoid delegates from China, leading to mass drop-outs. “Given the thousands of attendees that are flying in from China, are there going to be other attendees that are not going to want to join? I think it’s too early to tell,” Husson says.
MWC will likely still get the headlines if Samsung and Huawei attend, but the real damage will be behind the scenes if the hundreds of planned meetings and deals that delegates aim to make fail to take place.
Jitters over possible virus contagion have already caused Swatch Group to cancel its annual event in Switzerland next month and cast doubt on major conferences such as international property fair MIPIM and luxury watch show Baselworld.
For Chinese delegates that missed out on January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas because of the US-China trade war, the loss of MWC could be particularly galling.
The situation in Barcelona at the moment is calm, according to a spokesperson for Catalonia Tourism. “There is no alarm about the coronavirus here. The public administration has shared prevention measures with the hotels in Barcelona.”
These measures are effectively those of the World Health Organisation: wash your hands regularly, and call emergency services if you suspect you have come into contact with anyone with the virus.
Despite these setbacks MWC may still go ahead, but one thing’s for sure: handshakes are out and hands-on stories will definitely involve gloves.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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