What’s Your MWC Plan B?

If things had hewn to plan, I’d be writing this column from balmy Barcelona, rather than staring out my window at 42 and drizzle in Boston. In the immediate aftermath of MWC’s cancellation, Carolina wrote an excellent piece reflecting on how companies made the decision to withdraw and what impact this might have on future trade shows.  The cancellation of MWC was a big deal – 120,000 attendees, ½ a billion Euros to Barcelona’s economy, countless hours spent planning for the event, and no small number of dollars lost in non-refundable travel bookings.

I’d like to build on Carolina’s column with some thoughts of my own, focused on three key questions:

  • What are companies doing to offset some of the real or perceived business losses from the cancellation of this important annual event?
  • For those who use events like MWC to keep up on the latest and greatest on 5G, IoT, and other hot, mobile-related issues, what are some alternative means and substitutes?
  • Will the cancellation of MWC have any longer-term impact on major trade shows?

Company Strategies

Aside from the parties, SWAG, and the customary trade show excess, MWC is a gargantuan effort and expense for key vendors in the mobile ecosystem. Huge numbers of people spend more than a year planning for this event, with some companies’ MWC-related budgets running into the tens of millions of dollars. They plan major product announcements at this show. Some smaller companies allocate much of their annual sales and marketing budget to MWC basket, seeing it as the opportunity to have meetings with key prospects all in one place and in a concentrated amount of time.

So, in addition to the dollars lost and massive inconvenience of MWC’s cancellation, what are companies doing to make up for the perceived loss of business? We haven’t detected a major pattern, yet. Key vendors are implementing a variety of strategies. They’re issuing press releases of major product announcements and are holding webinars and other types of online briefings. One example is the slew of announcements of 5G phones, showcased in a Qualcomm 5G-related press event held this week.

In the immediate aftermath of MWC’s cancellation, some companies had announced plans to conduct a series of road shows or smaller, more customer-focused events. But we understand many of these plans have been put on hold, due to the still-spreading Coronavirus and escalating number of travel restrictions.

More urgently, over the past few days, I’ve had several discussions with companies who have shifted their focus from the new product announcements they were planning to make at MWC to focusing on their global supply chain and trying to minimize any disruption to customer commitments.

The GSMA, organizer of MWC, is trying to keep itself visible. Its news service is sending out product announcements and alerts. It is producing a series of MWC Shorts, showcasing some of the knowledge-sharing that would have happened in Barcelona. And, the GSMA has been mum with respect to MWC Shanghai, planned for June 30-July 2. I think they’re going to have to make a go/no-go decision on that one within a month.

For those who’d like an analysis of key MWC-related product announcements, please join me and two other highly respected industry analysts, Monica Paolini and Chris Nicoll, in a ‘Sparring Partners’ Webinar, Wireless Without MWC.

Substitute Events

Another key element of a tradeshow such as MWC is its role as an annual benchmark for the state of the industry, communicated in countless executive sessions and educational tracks. The 2020 MWC was set to be particularly critical, as we’re hip deep in Phase I of the 5G rollout, with new networks, new devices, and new use cases all emerging and being discussed.

The industry can ill-afford waiting until MWC 2021 for some sort of major confab. So, in addition to what some companies themselves might be doing directly (see above), it might be time to consider attending some of the smaller, regional, but still significant trade shows and conferences that will still hopefully happen. Among them:

5G World. London, June 9-11. I’ve attended/spoken at this event a couple of times. Last year I thought it was a bit flat, but the event might see a bit of a boost this year…

The Big 5G Event. Dallas, May 18-120. The North America version of the above show, and a re-branded version of what had been called The Big Telecom Event. No, Dallas ain’t Barcelona, but it’ll be easier to find accommodations…

IoT World. San Jose, April 6-9. A good opportunity to do a deep dive on IoT, visit your Silicon Valley friends, and feel like you’re in Barcelona by spending on overpriced hotels while missing Barcelona’s hyper-efficient transportation system (even when it’s on strike)

MWC Shanghai. June 30-July 2. A regional version of MWC. Would be a great opportunity to benchmark the 5G rollout in China and in Japan, in advance of the Olympics. Still on, as of late February…but we’ll see.

MWC Los Angeles. October 28-30. This event might move closer to ‘must attend’ status if there continue to be travel disruptions through the first half of 2020, but then things start recovering this summer. Then again, three days in downtown L.A. will really make you miss Barcelona.

Longer Term Effect on Trade Shows?

It’s too early to tell whether the cancellation of MWC, and, presumably, numerous other events over the next few months, will result in some bigger picture soul-searching about the value of big trade shows. Let’s face it, these types of events have a mix quantifiable benefits as well as ‘softer’ attributes experienced through meals, receptions, casual conversations, chance encounters, and just the sheer energy and osmosis that validate you’re part of something important and exciting.

I do think that some larger companies might use MWC’s cancellation as a ‘control variable’ in assessing the true value of this type of event. I don’t think we’ll see large scale pullouts of future MWCs, but we could see some companies adjusting how they approach major trade shows, what sorts of resources they devote to them, and what types of alternative events are equally effective.

Perhaps as one consolation, it was an unusually mild 65º in Boston on Monday — about the same temperature it was in Barcelona. Perhaps I should now do a search for ‘Best Tapas, Boston’…

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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