Getty Images / WIRED
It feels like déjà vu. Less than a fortnight after telecoms giant Ericsson said it was ditching this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) over concerns about Covid-19, many other businesses have followed its lead. Big names including Nokia, Sony, Oracle, Facebook, BT and Cisco have also pulled out of one of the world’s biggest technology trade show, due to take place in Barcelona in June.
With concerns about the spread of Covid-19 forcing the cancellation of last year’s MWC, it’s starting to feel like February 2020 all over again – only this time the event’s organiser, the GSMA, has vowed that the show will go on no matter what. “We are making every effort possible to ensure a safe and enjoyable MWC Barcelona experience,” a spokesperson for the organisation says, stressing that “the event is going ahead”.
Unlike last year, it’s not an insurance policy tied to a government announcement that is forcing MWC organisers to press on. It is understood that exhibitors paid for their space in advance a year ago, so if anyone wants to show up, the event must continue.
In response to the growing number of drop-outs, the GSMA is offering companies the chance to exhibit from afar. “Not everyone will be able to get to MWC 2021 so it will be a hybrid event,” the spokesperson says.
But with the organisation priding itself on the fact that $65 billion worth of business was transacted in the 1.6 million meetings that took place at MWC in 2019, the loss of so many headline vendors – and the delegates they bring – still comes as a blow. That is particularly true of Ericsson, which has been the show’s second largest exhibitor during its 14-year residency in Barcelona.
Thanks to a six-month old American startup with just 15 employees, the 6,000 square metres of premium space usually occupied by Ericsson is not going to be completely empty. Danielle Royston, founder and chief executive of Texas-based public cloud specialist TelcoDR, plans to fill the space with small vendors and “100 telepresence robots” with the aim of “revolutionising” what MWC stands for.
“My vision for this space is that I want to create a cloud city,” she says. “Usually your stand is just your stand, but I’m bringing other partners. I will pay for the booth space [because] I really want to lower the barrier so guys who would never have an audience like this [can attend].”
A self-styled cloud evangelist, Royston is offering space in her pavilion to firms focused on public cloud technology. That means that “instead of seeing the legacy past of Ericsson”, delegates will “see the future” when they visit her stand. With just over 100 days until the conference starts, she has yet to sign any smaller vendors up, though she says that ten have so far shown an interest.
“They are mostly American and European and there are a couple of Australian guys,” she says. “Australia is pretty restrictive – right now it’s not letting its citizens leave so I’m trying to be creative. We might train two people [on how to use their] software so we could do their demos or we could have a robot at their booth.”
Restrictions similar to those imposed by the Australian authorities could throw Royston’s plan into disarray. The GSMA has already announced that this year’s MWC will be far smaller than in previous years, with between 45,000 and 50,000 delegates rather than the usual 100,000-plus expected to attend. The authorities in Catalonia – who were counting on MWC to kickstart the local economy – have approved the safety measures the GSMA has put in place. But if the region is forced to tighten coronavirus restrictions – something that appears possible given what is already happening in Italy, Germany and France – even the reduced delegate numbers will be impossible to achieve.
Keynote speakers are already jittery about the prospect of attending. NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson is due to speak on the impact of tech in medical services. A spokesperson for the NHS says it is not possible to say whether Wilkinson will keep the engagement or not, noting that she “will be guided by the Covid travel and safety advice at the time”.
Ana Maiques, chief executive of Barcelona-based Neuroelectronics, says she will keep her slot if it involves speaking in an auditorium where she is “far from the audience and it is a third full”. “If they tell me I have to go to an auditorium of 5,000 people I’ll say no,” she adds.
Qualcomm, whose incoming chief executive Cristiano Amon is due to give the first keynote address of the event, is remaining tight-lipped about whether he still plans to attend in person or not. A spokesperson for the business, which is also one of MWC’s largest exhibitors, says it “appreciates the health and safety measures being put into place by the GSMA” but adds that it “will continue to monitor the situation in the run up to the event”.
Other exhibitors are being similarly circumspect. Huawei, which occupies close to 11,000 square metres over seven separate stands, controls by far the largest amount of floor space at MWC, including most of the first hall that delegates enter on arrival at the vast Fira de Barcelona complex. Last year it remained committed to attending after rivals such as LG pulled out, putting European staff on standby to attend in the event its Chinese executives had to pull out. Huawei did not respond when asked if it still planned to attend this year’s event.
LG, which also occupies a large stand and typically uses MWC to launch new devices, did not comment on whether it will attend this year’s show in person or not. A spokesperson for Samsung, meanwhile, says the company does “not have news to share at this time”.
The GSMA has somewhat insulated itself against the potential cancellations by striking a three-year deal with large exhibitors last year. Though the organisation took a significant hit by agreeing to refund all ticket sales, it put in place an arrangement that gave vendors the choice of taking a refund capped at £150,000 or using their 2020 fee to offset the multi-million pound cost of appearing in 2021, 2022 and 2023. It is understood that the vast majority took the three-year deal.
While that ensures companies can retain their coveted pavilion places, introducing the option of appearing virtually this year has also enabled the GSMA to lock last year’s payments in. “For MWC 2021, we are not offering refunds as the event is going ahead,” a GSMA spokesperson says.
Royston, who admits that plans for the event “could go south”, has more riding on the in-person event going ahead than any other exhibitor. Under the terms of the deal signed last year, Ericsson will retain the right to occupy its legacy space for the next two years. That means that if the in-person part of the show is cancelled, TelcoDR will not be able to roll its booking over into next year. Like all other vendors, it will also not be able to secure a refund of the “millions of dollars” Royston says she paid for the space.
Even if it does go ahead on June 28, Royston and any other confirmed exhibitors still have to fill their stands and convince people to attend. This doesn’t appear to be worrying her either. “A hundred days ago there was practically an insurgency in the US and now everyone’s like ‘Biden’s in charge and vaccines are on the uptick’,” she says. “A lot can happen in 100 days.”
More great stories from WIRED
🏥 The terror and trauma of surviving intensive care with Covid-19
🍩 We swapped the office for Slack and Teams. As hybrid working looms, the race is on to fix them
💬 How to spot fake Covid-19 NHS vaccine texts
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.