MWC21 is happening in Barcelona right now. I have participated in the event since 2005 every year, except once. So, I decided I must come to see what it looks like during the pandemic. Of course, my expectations were very low. But actually, the first day has been much better than I expected. Could this be the needed change for MWC?
Travelling to Spain required some extra effort, but it was straightforward with two vaccine shots or a negative COVID test result. It was much easier to book flights and hotels, and the prices were so much lower than in other years. You could get a nice hotel in central Barcelona for a reasonable price.
When I came to Barcelona, the first thing I noticed was that the event was not as visible as usual. No significant signs and guides at the airport, no MWC participant groups (yeah, you recognize those people) around the city and in restaurants. And when you come to the event venue, there are not many signs and guides at the metro and train stations.
I booked a COVID test beforehand for Monday morning at the event. The test is valid for three days. The test required some queueing and waiting, but it was done in 40 minutes. Then I received an SMS that I could enter the event, and also, the MWC app automatically updated my pass to indicate I had tested negative and was ready to enter. Then I was able to walk to the event, the gate recognized my face, and my temperature was taken.
When I was inside the event, the first feeling was that there were more people and exhibitors than I expected. Of course, it is nothing like a typical year, but if I think about the last 15 months, this is quite a busy event and gives the feeling that life is not all virtual. And the whole process to enter the event demonstrates that digital and mobile technology can work very smoothly nowadays.
Some of the big companies are missing. However, Chinese companies seem to be very active and have large stands. In addition, national stands and startup areas look very active. 4YFN is now in the same exhibition center as the main event, and it is very lively. This is positive for the event and the whole industry, as smaller companies and innovations get more visibility.
Networking is not the same as it used to be. Typically, when you have been in the industry for years, you meet old contacts throughout the event. But now hardly any of my old contacts are here. So, understandably, it looks like there are more people and companies from Spain than usual.
There are also positive sides that there are fewer people. Places are not so crowded, no queuing, and it is much easier to have a reasonable discussion with companies you want to meet. So, it is much more convenient to be at the event. But, of course, it is not the same as it used to be.
The event is definitely a step towards new normalcy. It also indicates that well-defined processes and suitable technology help make physical events better and safer. We will hopefully return to a more normal time soon. However, we still have uncertainty. There will be bumps on the way, and the timetable will be less than sure. MWC indicates that events can also adapt to COVID requirements.
A bigger question for MWC, in the long run, is how the event can adapt to the changing business environment of mobile and digital business. The old mobile incumbent giants have dominated MWC. It hasn’t been that effective in introducing innovation and startups.
This COVID time can force MWC to make changes so that it becomes more relevant to more companies. MWC has had the same concept since the 1990s, but the industry has changed significantly. So now it has a good reason to change the event, and they should utilize it, assuming it can survive the losses from 2020 and 2021.