Coronavirus: if we can’t cancel MWC, let’s cancel the boring bits

MWC coronavirus
A view of the exhibition floor at MWC 2019. A contagious virus, an international emergency, halls packed with people – what could go wrong? | Image credit: GSMA

As we reported last week, the Mobile World Congress is officially still on despite the global coronavirus outbreak. Speaking as someone who has attended almost every MWC since the late 1990s – and who lived in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003 – I feel I can say with confidence that packing 100,000 people into the Fira Gran Via for five days in the midst of a worldwide pandemic featuring a contagious and deadly virus is a really, really bad idea.

To be clear, I fully appreciate the dilemma the GSMA has suddenly found itself in. Postponing or relocating MWC would be a logistical nightmare, as would cancelling it altogether. Cancelling an event of any size at close to the last minute is painful, let alone a recurring event booked a year in advance that brings in so many people it bumps the host city’s GDP needle. Yet carrying on with the event is also risky.

There are simply no good choices here, and it’s difficult to say what the least bad choice is – whether your definition of ‘bad’ here is becoming the epicentre of a major viral outbreak, or losing lots of money.

Even so, it’s hard to believe the GSMA doesn’t have some kind of contingency plan for event cancellations buried somewhere in its contract with the Fira Gran Via, as well as its bookings with various hotels, transportation companies, the airport, etc. I would also hope they have some kind of event cancellation insurance that includes provisions for things like this.

Then again, they might not. Plenty of event organizers elsewhere have been wondering if things like the coronavirus are covered by event cancellation insurance policies – and the answer appears to be: only if you paid extra for a communicable disease rider. It’s possible the GSMA didn’t spring for that. Who knows?

Keep it clean

In any case, the GSMA has opted to carry on – at least until its hand is forced by government action, or perhaps a sharp spike in confirmed coronavirus cases in Spain and/or the rest of the EU.

In the meantime, the GSMA’s latest statement says that it will follow WHO guidelines and recommendations, and do what it can to mitigate the risk of infection to make MWC as hygienic as possible: increased cleaning and disinfection, more on-site medical support, facemasks and hand sanitizer for public use, and general hygiene best practices awareness campaigns for venue staff, exhibitors and delegates, plus lots of signage, microphone changes for each new speaker and (my personal favorite) advocating a voluntary “no handshake” policy.

Will that be enough? Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

For one thing, according to the GSMA’s coronavirus FAQ, it has no plans to do any kind of health certification for people traveling from China or health checks at the venue entrance – not that it would do much good, since symptoms from the coronavirus can take up to 14 days to appear, according to the latest information we have.

Also, MWC is a masterclass at jamming over 100,000 people into one place (to say nothing of the trains to and from the Fira during rush hour). Out of that, how many might be infected? And how many would fail to follow the extra hygiene rules sufficiently? We won’t know until it’s too late.

Perhaps the the one thing that will give the mitigation techniques the best chance of success is if year-on-year attendance drops at least 50%. That doesn’t seem likely – the coronavirus FAQ makes it clear that sponsors, exhibitors and delegates who want to drop out but have already paid their fees will only get refunds in accordance with the cancellation policies in the standard terms and conditions [PDF].

Let’s just say you stand a greater chance of contracting the coronavirus than getting a refund at this stage. (It will be interesting to see how that impacts attendance for MWC 2021.)

Get off the stage

Perhaps one compromise could be to scale back the event.

For example, the organizers of the Singapore Airshow (billed as Asia’s largest aerospace trade event) have just decided that despite a number of companies pulling out because of the coronavirus, they will push ahead with the event next week, but cancel the Aviation Leadership Summit that accompanies the event.

Perhaps MWC might consider skipping the conference this year – or at least the keynotes. Some of the panel sessions can yield some good discussions, but the keynotes are arguably the least worthwhile part of the entire event. The CEOs make practically the same predictable speeches/sales pitches every year and generally get tossed softball questions during the fireside chats. And we have to sit through the same opening GSMA marketing video over and over.

I mean, be honest – apart from the sponsors keen to make a sales pitch everyone in the audience has already heard, would anyone really miss it? Why not add your valuable opinion to our poll below?

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