Europe’s largest telecoms conference has been forced to cancel this year’s event after companies from Deutsche Telekom and Nokia to Amazon and Vodafone refused to attend over fears of the spread of coronavirus.
Mobile World Congress is a key event for Barcelona and claims to host more than 1m business meetings for its 109,000 attendees during the four-day conference at the end of February.
Most of the big telecoms and tech groups had decided not to attend owing to the rapid spread of coronavirus, including Facebook, Amazon, Cisco and Intel, as well as European telecoms vendors such as Ericsson. Many attendees are from Asia, with groups such as Huawei among the largest exhibitors.
The decision followed a board meeting of the GSMA, the industry body that organises the conference, on Wednesday. In a statement, the GSMA said: “The global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.”
It added: “The host city parties respect and understand this decision. The GSMA and the host city partners will continue to be working in unison and supporting each other for MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions.”
The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.
It is not clear whether MWC will need to carry the heavy cost of cancelling the event, or be able to recover the money spent on the conference, which officially takes place across a series of huge hangars between the city and the airport. Discussions over costs were still being held on Wednesday night, said one person familiar with the matter.
On Wednesday, the Spanish health minister, Salvador Illa, declined to announce a public health emergency, noting that there had so far only been two cases of coronavirus in the country. “With the information available today, there is no public health reason to take any further kind of measure,” he said.
Alba Vergés, minister of health for the Catalonia region, said: “There is no health reason to cancel or delay any event that might take place in Barcelona or Catalonia.”
Much of the dealmaking between telecoms operators and vendors of network equipment is carried out in private meetings and at lavish parties in the city’s upmarket hotels and venues.
China’s Huawei is one of the biggest groups at the show, with thousands of staff attending last year in the vast hangar where it shows off its latest technology. The company had already reduced numbers from China this year given fears over coronavirus, with greater numbers instead coming from its European operations. Those that have travelled from China have been asked to arrive 14 days early.
Vodafone said that “after careful consideration, we have decided to withdraw from this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona”.
It added: “While the potential risk is hard to quantify accurately at this stage, we have taken this decision because we place the utmost importance in the safety and wellbeing of our employees, customers and partners.”