BARCELONA – A major wireless technology trade fair kicked off in Barcelona on Monday with scaled-back attendance and beefed-up health and safety measures, changes that reflect the new reality for industry conventions in the pandemic era.
Mobile World Congress was canceled at the last minute last year because of COVID-19 concerns. Its 2021 revival makes it one of the few big trade shows so far to attempt a comeback even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to simmer in many parts of the world.
The show, known as MWC, is typically a glitzy and well-attended affair, with tech and telecom companies setting up elaborate pavilions to unveil the latest mobile devices, schmooze clients and lobby government officials. But this year, the world's biggest mobile industry trade show is likely to be a shadow of its former self.
“Obviously, there is a huge difference from previous years. This show is going to be much smaller, much safer from a health and safety perspective,” said Mats Granryd, director general of GSM Association, which organizes the show and represents more than 750 mobile network operators.
“We’re taking a lot of precautions: Testing people regularly within 72 hours, no hands, everything is touchless."
Still, companies like Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Sony and Qualcomm are staying away while South Korea's Samsung, the world's biggest mobile phone maker, is only holding a virtual device launch. Chinese tech giant Huawei, a major sponsor, is one the few big names that will have a show stand.
Granryd said he's expecting 25,000 to 30,000 people from 143 countries to attend in person, a fraction of the more than 100,000 visitors from 200 countries in recent years.
Other visitors will be attending virtually, as will a third of the show’s 350 speakers, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
At Barcelona’s Fira Gran Via exhibition centre, visitors had their temperatures checked by staff at the entrance. Other safety features include COVID-19 testing, extra ventilation and one-way routes around the venue. Attendees use an official MWC app to flash the negative test result needed to get in.
“My first impression is that I am very happy to be back,” said Lionel Anciaux, CEO of Brussels-based smart sensor company IOT Factory. Anciaux said he usually attends every year, “and last year without Mobile World Congress we really felt that we missed something in terms of finding new partners and also getting to know the new trends in technology.”
The GSMA delayed the show from its usual February slot to buy time in the hope the pandemic would be under control by now. Granryd said they plan to move it back to February for 2022.
To help make the four-day show happen, Spanish authorities agreed to exempt exhibitors, attendees, sponsors and partners from travel restrictions that might otherwise prevent them from entering the country.
Spain eased COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday by scrapping a requirement to wear face masks outdoors, as long as people remain at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart. Masks remain mandatory indoors in public places and on public transport.
Barcelona has hosted MWC since 2006 and last year's cancellation dealt a major economic blow to the city, with lost revenue for hotels, restaurants and taxi companies.
Authorities estimate the show typically generates 473 million euros ($516 million) and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.
Other big tech industry trade fairs disrupted by the pandemic are planning to return in force, including Berlin's IFA in September, Lisbon's WebSummit set for November and CES in Las Vegas in January.
Chan reported from London.