GSMA and MWC – between a rock and hard place

Photo by Brett Sayles

Whichever way you look at it this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) will be anything but normal. Through no fault of its own the GSMA is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The untimely outbreak of coronavirus that is spreading worldwide has raised concerns for attendees, exhibitors and government officials. A number of major exhibitors have already decided not to attend the event, as have many attendees. Despite daily reports of more withdrawals the GSMA is holding fast, determined the event will go ahead as planned. The question is: are there any alternatives?

In a poll we have been running for over a week it is evident that people are acutely aware of the issues and concerned about the event. More than 80% of respondents have indicated they would like the event to be either cancelled or postponed. Although our small sample may not be representative of the 100,000 expected attendees it should raise alarm bells and call for a deeper analysis of the situation by the GSMA.

Pulling out at this late stage is going to cost exhibitors and attendees dearly but if the event was postponed or even cancelled for this year the GSMA could carry over their commitments to a later date or next year’s event. Exhibitors and attendees, unless insured for such an event, are set to lose on stand builds, accommodation and travel costs but this would surely not be as bad as losing their total outlay to the GSMA or putting their staff at risk. We understand that 50% deposit is required by the GSMA for MWC, and that amount is not refundable. Anyone under the impression that insurance policies will mitigate losses, will need to check if they ticked the box marked, “communicable disease coverage”, to get anything back.

If the event does go ahead, the numbers are likely to be so low that those going will be questioning if they should be paying full whack. Whichever way you look at it, the GSMA is in a no-win situation and forcing the event to go on, despite the signs, smacks to some as arrogance or greed – and not wanting to lose those massive revenues.

The official word from the GSMA is that it is collaborating with Spanish health authorities by preventing all travellers from Hubei province from accessing the event and that all travellers that have been in China will need to demonstrate proof that they have been outside of China 14 days prior to the event. That’s great but how can this be policed effectively, and what pressure does it put on anyone else that holds a Chinese passport, looks Chinese or even Asian in appearance. Is the GSMA aware that the coronavirus has now been detected in many more countries – should everyone from those counties also be screened?

“Temperature screening will also be implemented, and attendees will need to self-certify they have not been in contact with anyone infected.” Really? Are they conveniently ignoring the fact that this virus can be transmitted well before any signs appear (with an incubation period anywhere between 3 and 24 days) and that most people will not know if they have been infected or have come into contact with an infected person until they fall ill themselves?

The measures the GSMA is implementing are basically about increased cleaning and disinfecting pubic areas at the event, increasing onsite medical support, raising awareness and advising all attendees not to shake hands (but no mention of hugging and cheek-kissing popular with Europeans).  And if those safety precautions don’t fill you with confidence you also have the local and state health authorities chipping in to assure everyone that “we are not in an exceptional situation and our health system is ready”. I’m sorry, but the potential of 100,000 foreign visitors descending on one city in a time of an international pandemic should probably raise greater concerns. Ah, but think of all those Euros coming in!

I presume these guardians of public health are going to disinfect every train and every taxi after every trip as they are the most likely places people will contract the disease which is primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets spread by coughing, sneezing or even breathing in close proximity. Anyone who has been to MWC in Barcelona will know that the chances of this happening are zero, but the chances of being pressed together like sardines on a train is a certainty. That is, presuming the trains don’t go on strike during the event like they always do!

Singapore, that has past experience with SARS and currently has 45 cases of coronavirus to deal with, is recommending its citizens turn off air-conditioners and to open windows to prevent the spread of the virus. There are also questions on most online sites asking whether surgical face masks prevent transmission of the virus, apart from those selling them! Indications are that they make little or no difference unless worn correctly and are changed regularly. So, where does all this leave us?

Many companies are wisely giving their employees the option to attend or not. Mobile operators we talked to are questioning whether they really need to be there and if they can survive one year without MWC. After all, they know that vendors will always be available or just a call away. Exhibitors are weighing up their options, none of which appear terribly favourable.

Others are worried that if they ‘ask’ staff to attend, or make it mandatory, and they catch the coronavirus as a result, where they stand legally. And many employees fear that if they don’t obey instructions to attend, their future prospects with their companies may be in jeopardy. For smaller exhibitors and vendors, MWC provides the one opportunity to get in front of thousands of potential customers and, in many cases, they simply cannot afford not to go.

It seems that everyone associated with MWC, especially the GSMA, is between a rock and a hard place and it is only the GSMA that can come up with an alternative that minimises the pain and anxiety that many are going through. Postponement or cancellation would be possible options – proceeding half-heartedly with much lower numbers, the other. Whichever way you look at it someone will not be happy, and the repercussions for the GSMA will take many months to be sorted out.

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