Coronavirus Fears Cause GSMA to Cancel Mobile World Congress Barcelona

The decision was reached by organizers Wednesday after weeks of discussions about health concerns.

February 12, 2020

4 Min Read

By Todd R. Weiss

The threat of coronavirus has killed the Mobile World Congress 2020 gathering in Barcelona, the world’s largest mobile technology conference.

In a terse statement to prospective exhibitors, attendees and to the host nation of Spain, John Hoffman, CEO of the GSMA, which has been hosting MWC in Barcelona annually since 2006, wrote that the gathering has now been canceled after weeks of efforts that were meant to increase safety for attendees.

“Since the first edition of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2006, the GSMA has convened the industry, governments, ministers, policymakers, operators and industry leaders across the broader ecosystem,” wrote Hoffman. “With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has canceled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.”

The city of Barcelona, which will lose a huge amount of tourist revenue due to the cancellation, respects and understands the decision, Hoffman said.

MWC 2020 had been scheduled for Feb. 24-27.

Organizers now will focus their attention on preparing for next year’s MWC and future GSMA events, according to Hoffman.

“Our sympathies at this time are with those affected in China, and all around the world,” he wrote.

A wide range of technology companies – including Amazon, AT&T, Ericsson, Facebook, Intel, LG, MediaTek, Nokia, Nvidia, Telekom, Sony, Sprint, Vivo and Vodafone – had already announced in recent days that they would skip MWC 2020 due to their concerns about coronavirus. Other companies remained on the fence or said they would bring limited numbers of people to the event.

Several IT analysts told Channel Futures that they were not surprised by the GSMA decision.


Gartner’s Tuong Nguyen

“This is one of those situations where the smart thing to do is also the right thing to do,” said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. “Tightly packed humanity is and always has been a haven for disease transmission. All in all, it’s better that MWC’s leadership recognizes the extraordinary circumstances and has decided to opt for public safety.”

Another analyst, Avi Greengart of Techsponential, said it was a sensible precaution by MWC organizers to try to initially keep the event alive by excluding attendees who had been to mainland China without an incubation period, but that plan seemed to have unraveled.

“However, even after that decision, major vendors kept canceling,” said Greengart. “The GSMA likely felt like it had no choice but to close the show after its own member companies pulled out of the event.”

Could such circumstances happen with technology conferences here in the U.S. in the coming weeks and months?

“Ordinarily, I would not expect U.S.-based tech events to be affected, but we don’t know when the coronavirus will be fully contained,” he said. “Until then, the fear of liability has proven highly contagious.”

Analyst Tuong H. Nguyen of Gartner said it’s hard to say what will happen with similar tech events in the U.S.

“It really depends on how widespread the virus gets,” said Nguyen. “It also depends on where the scientific community gets with vaccines and figuring out how the virus gets transmitted, etc.”

Other factors that will determine if the outbreak affects U.S. tech events are how well information is communicated about the virus and how false or misinformation is suppressed, he said.

“The event needs to be something significantly large and drawing broad attendance — I’m thinking something like CES,” which was already held in early January in Las Vegas, Nguyen added.

“Part of it might be cultural as well,” said Nguyen. “I was at the Samsung event in San Francisco yesterday where they were handing out face masks for the virus. I thought it was interesting because the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] recommends against face masks.”

Out of hundreds of people in the audience, about a dozen people wore the masks, he said.

“So either these people ignore CDC recommendations, don’t know about them, or don’t care,” said Nguyen.

A spokesperson for the CDC didn’t immediately respond to a Channel Futures request for information about how coronavirus might be inspiring any special procedures for conferences here in the U.S. at the present time.

The MWC 2019 event in Barcelona attracted nearly 110,000 attendees from almost 200 countries and territories, which was a 2% increase over 2018, according to the group’s post-conference report.

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