LONDON >> Organizers of the world’s biggest mobile technology fair are pulling the plug over worries about the viral outbreak from China.
The annual Mobile World Congress show will no longer be held as planned in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 24-27.
“Global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event,” John Hoffman, head of the organizing body, said in a statement Wednesday.
The decision comes after dozens of tech companies and wireless carriers dropped out, with the latest cancelations by Nokia, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Britain’s BT on Wednesday. Other big names that have already dropped out include Ericsson, Nokia, Sony, Amazon, Intel and LG. The companies cited concerns for the safety of staff and visitors.
Organizers had sought to hold out against growing pressure to cancel the annual tech extravaganza, which had been expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors from about 200 countries, including 5,000 to 6,000 from China.
Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies, said that with all the unknowns surrounding how the new virus is spread, and the fact that many companies had already pulled out, the decision to cancel was the most prudent decision for show organizers.
“They had the ability to protect 100,000 people in one general fairground atmosphere,” he said.
These days, most big companies hold their own product launch events anyway, as Samsung did Tuesday in San Francisco. But Bajarin said Mobile World Congress was still an opportunity for many people in the mobile industry to meet in one place.
“It allowed for a lot of networking and business dealings, so in that context, it was a significant loss,” he said.
The GSMA, the wireless trade body that organizes the fair, had said it was meeting regularly with global and Spanish health experts and its partners to ensure the well-being of attendees. It had already urged participants to avoid handshakes and planned to step up cleaning and disinfecting and make sure speakers don’t use the same microphone.
Earlier Wednesday, Nokia said it had decided to withdraw “after a full assessment of the risks related to a fast-moving situation.” The company said “the health and well-being of employees was a primary focus” and that canceling its involvement was a “prudent decision.”
The departures of Nokia and Ericsson had left China’s Huawei, a major sponsor of the fair, as the only remaining major network gear maker still planning to attend.
Organizers were caught between risking potential backlash over public health concerns if they went ahead or facing big financial losses if they canceled, said Stephen Mears, a research analyst at Futuresource Consulting.
Even before the cancellation, Mears said his five-person team was considering dropping out or shortening the trip as many participants they wanted to meet wouldn’t be there, including those from China, which accounts for an increasing share of the global smartphone and mobile network industry.
“It’s becoming less and less valuable for people like us to attend if we’re not able to get meetings with the high-level executives,” he said.
Spanish authorities tried to promote a message of calm as they scrambled to keep alive the trade show, which they say generates 473 million euros ($516 million) and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.
The Catalan regional health chief, Alba Vergés, said there was a “very low risk of the coronavirus” in the region of Catalonia, where Barcelona is located, and that authorities are “completely prepared to detect any cases.” Four suspected cases have all have proven negative, she said at a press briefing earlier.
“There is no public health reason to cancel any event in Catalonia or Barcelona, including the Mobile World Congress,” Vergés said. “If the companies make their own decision, we have to respect that, but we are here to explain this from a public health perspective.”
Dr. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, said before the cancellation that the show could have gone on.
“There’s no zero risk with any mass gathering,” he said. “There’s a risk of food poisoning, injuries, buildings have collapsed. All meeting organizers have to put in place a risk-management strategy. Many of the risks can be reduced through simple measures and if an event occurs, those can also be managed.”
Ryan added that most events “can continue if the proper measures can be applied.”