While another wave of the coronavirus is spreading in Spain, the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress 2021 is scheduled to happen as planned, in person, in Barcelona in early March.

According to the GSMA and the MWC Barcelona website, it’s a go. In fact, they’re encouraging colleagues to join them March 1-4 2021 in Barcelona, where “innovators, creators and leaders gather at the largest mobile event in the world to shape the future.” Attendees are invited to book their accommodations.

“We are working to ensure MWC 2021 is an unmissable and in person event as we monitor the situation, seeking expert advice and collaborating with our partners as information emerges,” a GSMA spokesperson told FierceWireless.

As of this week, about a dozen companies are listed as confirmed for MWC21, including Ericsson, Qualcomm, Nokia, AWS, Samsung and Microsoft. Ericsson was the first big vendor to cancel its participation in the 2020 MWC Barcelona, which ultimately was canceled on February 12, when it didn’t seem possible that COVID-19 would prevent MWC21 from happening in 2021.

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Ericsson provided the following statement to Fierce about next year’s show: “Ericsson’s top priority is the health and safety of our employees, customers and other stakeholders. For Mobile World Congress 2021 in Barcelona, Ericsson has signed up for our regular space in Hall 2 of La Fira, and plan accordingly. Should there be indications that the global pandemic remains a risk factor as we get closer to the event, we’ll independently review our decision.”

Typically, the Barcelona event attracts more than 100,000 attendees from over 200 countries. Organizers of CES, the tech extravaganza that attracts a worldwide audience to Las Vegas in January most years, announced in July that its show will be all digital in 2021.

GSMA, which is based in London, in June said that for the rest of 2020, all of its Mobile 360 conferences would transition to virtual events, known as GSMA Thrive. “Our inaugural event, Thrive China was a great success and we are gearing up for Thrive Africa at the end of this month,” the spokesperson said. “We will absolutely take lessons learned from these events into our planning for MWC21, with this year’s theme, Connected Impact.”

Typically time to book

Analysts who spoke with Fierce this week said unless a surprise vaccine surfaces in due time, they are highly doubtful MWC21 in Barcelona is going to happen in-person in March. A lot can happen between now and then, but with transportation options and border restrictions continually subject to change, it’s not a sure bet Spain’s borders will even be open to U.S. business travelers.

GlobalData analyst John Byrne recently noticed GSMA put out a video celebrating MWC highlights from years past. However, “it’s not an issue as to whether people think it’s a worthwhile event. They don’t have to prove that,” he said. “Covid is going to decide whether it happens or not, no matter how many glossy videos they put out.”

This would have been the time last year when he would be making sure his team is booking reservations for the show. This year, “we’re holding off,” he said. “At least for now, we’re assuming it’s not going to happen… Barring some miracle vaccine, I feel we’re going to be in a space where nobody is really comfortable going to Spain.”

RELATED: GSMA extends contract with Barcelona through 2024

Last month, the GSMA re-appointed bnetwork as its official hotel, housing and hospitality partner, a partnership the GSMA said is critical to “ensuring participants of MWC Barcelona experience the hospitality synonymous with Spain” and can make the most of the event. Working with hotels in Barcelona, bnetwork negotiated a significant reduction over 2020 hotel room rates, the GSMA said, with attendees getting a 25% savings when booking through bnetwork, “a signal that the hotels are committed to this global event and welcoming back guests of the GSMA.”

According to the booking policy listed on bnetwork’s website, if MWC Barcelona 2021 is canceled or postponed because of COVID-19, an individual who books a reservation will be reimbursed 100% of the deposit paid until October 29. Before January 29, bnetwork guarantees reimbursement of 80% of the deposit paid, with 20% going toward the next MWC Barcelona event.

Can GSMA take another hit?

GSMA gets significant revenue from the show – big exhibitors spend millions of dollars on their exhibits and while not all of it goes directly to GSMA, it relies on the show for much of its revenues. “To take a hit two years in a row, that would be a disaster,” Byrne said.

The GSMA also does advocacy work on behalf of the industry; it’s not strictly a trade show business. If it loses another big revenue source, it’s not just a matter of layoffs; it’s a matter of having to decide which activities it can continue to support and which ones to cut back, analysts said.

“They need the money, and you can always hope,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, of the prospects for MWC21. “They need this.” But with cases going up again in Spain, “it doesn’t look that fantastic. It hurts a lot.”

Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, said it’s very difficult to imagine that there will be an in-person MWC 2021.

“This is the time when a lot of companies start making plans for that event, and I believe there’s too much uncertainty for many to give it the full steam ahead,” he told Fierce. With numerous flare-ups and no vaccine imminent, “planning for an in-person event that draws huge crowds, plus the networking, parties, restaurants, transport – all of that – I believe many would opt to not attend, and many companies would also not be willing to send their employees.”

Lowenstein said he thinks GSMA needs to make a decision by November at the latest. So much planning goes into MWC, such as the exhibits, the travel, and so on. “They also need to make a decision by then so that companies can start planning for what the alternative might be, such as a ‘virtual’ expo of some sort,” he said. “Last year’s cancellation was an emergency. This year’s must be done with forethought.”

On the upside, there’s the possibility of a scaled back event – for example, something more regional in nature. “I think the GSMA will be creative and come up with something virtual/remote that is compelling,” Lowenstein said, suggesting one option might be to postpone the event and decide to do something later in 2021, or just do smaller, regional events once things seem safer.

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