Feb 26th 2020

Influence in absence – why MWC’s cancellation will force a rethink of the trade show format

 So MWC20 Barcelona is no more, and the telecoms industry has been left scrambling to mitigate the fallout from the cancellation of its preeminent trade show. Some companies have decided to go ahead and host events in Barcelona, while others have turned to virtual booths and telephone briefings to maintain engagement with customers and prospects. Only time will tell how successful these tactics have been. But one thing’s for certain – the GSMA’s landmark decision has forced the tech industry to reevaluate how it approaches conferences, and it’s a decision that will have ramifications for years to come.

The show must go on?

As it stands, the Spanish economy and exhibitors look to be bearing the brunt of the show’s cancellation. According to Bloomberg, visitors to the city during MWC19 spent $513 million, while as Forrester Vice President and Principal Analyst Frank Gillett, commented, “there’s no way to make up for all the social, in-person conversations that are oxygen for the competitive mobile industry.” Yet despite the absence of MWC forcing many to acknowledge its value – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and all that – questions about its future remain.

These questions are fueled by the uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus. With the situation constantly evolving and a vaccine months’ away from being available, firms may be hesitant to invest in the show in 2021. Given the fact that the GSMA will need to start planning for next year months in advance, if they lack a commitment from exhibitors, they may find themselves forced into cancelling once again. And if two years go by without the event taking place, reinstating it will be challenging.

Adding to the pressures facing the GSMA is the escalating tension between the association and its members, as the debate surrounding refunds rages on. Fortune reports that frustrations are rife, with many turning to Twitter to vent, while local lawyers have started promoting their services to assist companies in reclaiming funds. The GSMA has faced further backlash over its failure to fully acknowledge the anger its members are feeling over cancellation chaos. Not only could this stance by the GSMA undermine its members’ trust; it also risks subjecting them to further costs thanks to the need to duplicate marketing efforts, which could cause them to think twice before investing again. As CCS Insights Analyst Ben Wood commented to the BBC, many smaller firms may now be considering whether to attend next year because, “they have had to swallow many of the costs from this year’s show…. Major companies and many attendees will be reviewing the importance of MWC to their business.”

Virtually speaking 

In the months ahead, companies will also be reviewing the success of their alternative activities. If virtual booths or local events are able to generate the same amount of revenue and engagement as the show, the GSMA may struggle to convince businesses to invest again. But this in turn could fuel other benefits. With a single ticket to MWC and other industry trade shows frequently costing several thousands of pounds before travel has even been considered, smaller companies will often find themselves in the position of having to limit the number of (and prioritise) representatives attending such events.

Given that virtual conferences have inherently lower overheads, they can be significantly cheaper (or free) to attend, making it possible for a greater number to benefit from a conference programme.  Sonatype, for example, produces a 24-hour virtual IT community conference, All Day DevOps, which is free to attend, and last year saw some 38,000 participants log in around the globe. As the company notes, “the format and cost are a great equalizer.” Derek Weeks, VP & DevOps advocate at Sonatype and co- Founder of All Day DevOps, commented that companies are drawn to the event because it enables them to “educate more of their employees while fostering industry networking. Businesses like BT, IBM, NTT Data and Northrop Grumman saw hundreds of employees participate in All Day DevOps without incurring costly travel expenses, expensive booth space, and conference registration fees.”

Going green

The trade show format is also likely to face further scrutiny thanks to the global drive to reduce carbon emissions. With aviation contributing to around 2% of global greenhouse gases – and

hundreds of thousands of people flying to attend industry events each year – more shows may shift to a virtual model in a bid to combat climate change. Climate concerns may also impact CSR strategies and the location of events. IBC, which takes place in Amsterdam in September each year, is one event that’s taking steps to offset its footprint, commenting that it encourages staff to use the direct Eurostar train in preference to flying, and “is looking at providing a carbon offsetting service for their flights.” IBC cites its accessibility by road as a positive; a factor which could cause other events to reevaluate which host cities they use.

While significant changes to the trade show model may be years in the making, in the short term we will still see fallout from MWC’s cancellation, from companies scaling back participation in other events, to harnessing creative communications tactics to drive market visibility.  MWC is often seen as a place where trends are born, laying out a blueprint for the industry to follow in the year ahead. In its absence, the show still wields significant influence, just not in the way it intended.