MWC2020 Cancellation And What We Can Learn From It

What a difference does a week make! Last Tuesday, I was still making plans to attend Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona despite the number of companies withdrawing from the show was growing. Since 2000, when I started covering the mobile market, I only missed the show once, the year my daughter was born. Interestingly that year, I thought I had the best grasp of the show because not being on the ground allowed me to follow press conferences as well as read all the material that was being published. I did miss out though on catching up with people either formally or informally. If you ask most people, aside from seeing and touching products, it is that chance to meet face to face they cherish the most. MWC, in particular, offers the opportunity to meet high-ranking executives from organizations that might not be based where you are. Hence why I was disappointed to hear the news that the GSMA had decided to cancel the show entirely, a decision that seemed inevitable. It was the right step to take not just for the show but to avoid a broader expansion of the coronavirus.

The chances of getting infected at the show were minimal, but we know how a common flu bug affects hundreds of people at the end of any show like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or MWC where thousands of people travel from all the corner of the world to touch the same devices, shake hands, share food and breath the same air. Siding on caution was undoubtedly the right thing to do for the event organizers and I would argue the decision could have been taken sooner.

Liability and Employee Welfare

As much as I was willing to take a risk and still attend MWC, many companies felt that they were not going to impose attendance onto their employees, so when exhibitors were not canceling, they were giving options. All of the companies that decided to withdraw mentioned that the safety of their employees was paramount, and they were being ultra-cautious. I do not want to be cynical, but I am sure that an abundance of caution was driven more by liability concerns than anything else.

It was fascinating also to see how companies based in Europe and the US were among the first to withdraw while China-based brands were among the last. I am sure there is a correlation between the more litigious nature of the employee base and worker rights in the US and Europe, respectively, that might explain the different stands on the issue. China-based companies might have also had a more pragmatic approach to the situation based on their learnings during SARS and possibly a feeling of being better informed on how the situation in China was developing.

As China plays a more crucial role, not just in the tech supply chain, but in driving innovation for key technologies such as 5G and AI, it will be interesting to see how the different values and beliefs will play a role in the development and go to market.

More Connected Than We Realize

MWC, maybe even more so than CES, really attracts exhibitors and attendees from all regions of the world, including a high number of Chinese brands. Establishing who was coming from where and, maybe more importantly, who traveled where before the 14 days of the virus incubation was going to be impossible. If you stop and think about it for a second, it is quite amazing to think of how easy it is for us to travel nowadays and of course how easy it would be for the virus to travel too especially at a time when we are still not sure on the how and why. Interestingly, even with all the data that is available about us and our life, when it comes to international activity finding all the pieces of the puzzle is not easy due to how the data is kept and shared or not shared because of individual country regulations or privacy laws. It seems to me that because of how easy travel has become health organizations should start thinking of how to drive governments to come up with a disaster protocol that accounts for prompt data sharing.

Over the past few years, China has grown as a center of gravity for the tech world. Companies have much of their supply chain based there, and many have a very sizable customer base. Spending time in China is part of being in tech. Whether you attend events, visit suppliers, or meet with partners, tech executives across the world, visit China regularly.

As the coronavirus spread outside of China, travel to and from China was suspended, leaving industry watchers to call out the benefits of video conferencing and digital collaboration as an alternative to keep business going. A health crisis is not the only time we hear calls for technology to help us cut back on travel; economic downturns usually fuel calls for cost-cutting by embracing online meetings.

2019 has seen the rise of video services such as Zoom and BlueJeans as well as collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and Slack. People have their favorite, and as much as they swear their workday is at a total loss when any one of these services is down, we all still look for in-person meetings. We want to meet in person because even if video has come of a long way, it lacks the degree of intimacy that an in-person meeting delivers. Reading people is so much easier in person than on video, plus familiarity builds trust, which is critical in many sessions aimed at creating or cementing a partnership, sharing confidential information, or only evaluating a product.

Companies will be struck this year with losses coming from the cancellation of MWC, and smaller companies especially might evaluate whether or not attending in the future is worthwhile. It is somewhat ironic that as we discuss 5G speeds and coverage, AR and VR capabilities and remote everything we are reluctant to rely on those very technologies to discuss the future of the industry.

What Now?

Since last week I have received a few requests for online meetings, but very little has been said about what will replace the press conferences that were scheduled for MWC. Many people asked me what the impact on consumers will be, and there is no real impact from canceling the show. The delays in new product releases will come from the effect the novel coronavirus will have on factory workers and production, not from the cancellation of a trade show.

The GSMA is already marketing next year’s show, and it is too early to say if attendance will be impacted. I do wonder if people will use this year’s break as an excuse to reevaluate their participation as well as make a more general consideration of whether all these tradeshows we attend every year make business sense. At a time when sustainability and social responsibility are higher up in many companies’ priority list, maybe leveraging technology to lower travel for the good of the planet and the health of the employees is not a bad thing.