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COVID-19 wiped out Barcelona's Mobile World Congress — but tech industry finds new ways to network

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COVID-19 wiped out Barcelona's Mobile World Congress — but tech industry finds new ways to network
Copyright  Oliver Whitfield-Miocic
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Barcelona should have been a lot busier this week, with 100,000 visitors expecting to descend on the Catalan city to celebrate all things tech at Mobile World Congress (MWC).

But the four-day event was cancelled for the first time in 30 years after leading tech companies including LG Electronics, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Sony announced they would not attend amid coronavirus fears.

Hours after the cancellation was announced, the hashtag #unofficialMWC2020 was being shared on Twitter. Telemedia Magazine, a British publication, had taken it upon itself to ensure the show must go on.

Oliver Whitfield Miocic
An #unofficialMWC2020 event in Barcelona, February 2020.Oliver Whitfield Miocic

"Our ethos is to be very punk rock really. We are disruptors," Telemedia's Jarvis Todd told Euronews.

Instead of the big congress, this year's unofficial edition involves a series of smaller networking events and parties that Todd argues are more effective at building connections in the industry.

"We put this schedule together and people were emailing us going 'I haven’t been to Barcelona for years because it has been so f***ing expensive and so pointless but actually I’ve seen your schedule and I’m really excited'.

"The GSMA [MWC organisers] clearly can’t cater for all of the different niche markets and sectors within their umbrella. This has really shown us for the first time that people are prepared to extract themselves from the GSMA," he added.

'Outrageously expensive'

Slovenian technology journalist Srdjan Cvjetović agrees. According to him, companies are annoyed at spending €1,200 per square meter of exhibition space and being forced to buy the site’s expensive internet infrastructure or risk being fined if they bring their own.

In an article, he predicted that firms would find new ways of reaching suppliers, customers and the media in Barcelona and that this would impact how MWC operates in 2021.

"One year is an extremely long time in telecommunications and by then new balances and relationships will be established," he wrote.

When asked about these concerns, the GSMA told Euronews that "MWC changes and innovates every year." The GSMA has previously said it will host the event in Barcelona until 2023.

Oliver Whitfield-Miocic
Carbon Mobile Business Development VP Klaus Seibold in Barcelona, February 2020.Oliver Whitfield-Miocic

From conference hall to the hotel bar

German phone manufacturer Carbon Mobile had planned to strike business deals at the vast Fira de Barcelona hall where MWC is usually held — but instead is hosting meetings in the bar of the swanky beachside W Hotel.

“Let's face it, this is not a bad view" VP Business Development Klaus Seibold told Euronews while observing swaying palm trees by the pool. "Welcome to my office."

The start-up is selling a thin, lightweight Android smartphone made from composite materials including carbon fibre and graphene which will eventually be manufactured in Europe.

He has as many meetings scheduled from his beachside site as he would at the bigger event hall. MWC, he said, is "outrageously expensive" and should include events that are more targeted.

Livestreams and antibacterial gel

Several other phone companies are still holding events in Barcelona despite concerns over COVID-19, including one of the world's biggest, Huawei.

The launch of its eye-wateringly expensive Mate X folding smartphone — which will retail at €2,499 from next month — included a video speech from Consumer Business CEO Richard Yu and antibacterial gel for the 450 attendees.

Oliver Whitfield-Miocic
Huawei event in Barcelona, February 2020.Oliver Whitfield-Miocic

There was no mention of MWC’s cancellation or novel coronavirus. Selected journalists were then invited to meet Yu for individual interviews.

Honor, a Huawei subsidiary, adopted a similar strategy, presenting their products through a live-stream before later mingling with journalists.