Have massive consumer electronics trade shows like Mobile World Congress, CES, and IFA had their day? Judging by the trepidation shown towards the rapidly approaching, in-person MWC 2021, it seems so, even if organizers haven’t fully accepted it yet.

There are early signs that the companies that want to attend seem to be changing, and should this continue, the people who need to be in attendance will change too. Due to this, next year we may see smaller, less glitzy, more business-based events as organizers begin to accept how the world has changed since early 2020, and start to understand the mega gatherings of before are less desirable and make less sense than before.

MWC 2021

Mobile World Congress 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but organizers pledged to be back in 2021, and sure enough, the GSMA — the industry group behind the event — will hold an in-person event from June 28 to July 1. It says it expects 50,000 attendees and has published a list of worryingly standard health and safety precautions in an attempt to prevent the show from becoming a hotbed of coronavirus infections.

people walking around at Mobile World Congress

Not all companies are convinced it’s worth the expense or risk to attend, and echoing last year’s exodus ahead of the show, Nokia, Sony, Ericsson, Oracle, and now Google have all announced they will not make the trip to Barcelona, Spain for MWC this year. Google’s departure is a blow. For anyone who hasn’t attended MWC before, Google has always added a lot of fun to the show with extensive, interactive indoor and outdoor booths and exhibition spaces, and even an always-popular line of collectible pins for attendees to grab.

It’s unlikely these will be the last companies to pull out of the show, as there are still weeks to go before the event is scheduled to start. However, rather than kill the show, the shuffling of companies keen to exhibit may just be a sign the show, and associated landscape, is changing. The GSMA filled Ericsson’s space at the event quickly, selling it to a company called TelcoDR. What’s interesting is TelcoDR doesn’t have a traditional product. It’s a consultancy, advising telecoms companies on how to leverage the cloud and absolutely business-focused.

“We are changing the conversation at MWC Barcelona from the ‘Has Beens’ to the ‘New Disruptors,’” TelcoDR writes about attending MWC. Rather than the usual suspects on the list of companies attending, it’s just as possible that the trade show itself is the has-been, as it and others shift away from welcoming massive companies and huge product launches, and towards firms like TelcoDR, which are more about influencing the industry from a business perspective.

Should this happen, MWC will subsequently become less attractive to consumer electronics brands and the press alike.

It has never been about the press

The media has never made up the majority of MWC, or any other trade show, attendees. The operative word is, “trade,” and most of the people at these shows are “business” people. Media is still an integral part of the trade show experience, but it’s not the primary reason these shows exist, and as many companies have come to realize, the needs of the press can be served equally as well (and sometimes even better) outside the show itself.

CES 2019 Crowd Hero Shot
David McNew/Getty Images

Samsung is a good example. For a while now it has held any MWC press event, where the latest products are shown off, outside of the show at a separate venue. Not only that, but it has greatly varied the day and date of doing so over the past few years, to the point where its early-year announcements have not actually coincided with MWC at all. It has still attended MWC, but the media has usually already seen everything it has on display. Why? Because MWC isn’t about the press, it’s about business.

Samsung’s treatment of MWC isn’t unique. Apple doesn’t attend at all, preferring to hold its own events locally, while Huawei — a major MWC attendee — also traditionally holds an offsite press event. As a member of the press, I often spend an equal or sometimes even greater amount of time at events spread around the city of Barcelona, rather than on the MWC show floor itself.

Many consumer electronics companies have been making tentative moves in this direction for a while, and now there is more motivation than ever to fully embrace what could be a very positive change, by switching to smaller, more local, and likely hybrid events to focus on media attention, cut costs, and minimize the environmental impact of attending multiple large-scale industry shows.

Change at all levels

Leaving aside how this city-wide activity will affect the GSMA’s attempts to control any spread of coronavirus during MWC this year, it also illustrates how different the media’s needs are to other attendees of the show. If brands like Samsung and Huawei decide not to showcase new consumer products in Barcelona at MWC, and business-led consultancies like TelcoDR take over spaces left by established industry companies like Ericsson, it becomes less important for media to attend at all.

Hybrid — a combination of in-person and online — events work well for media. We get all the crucial information, can arrange and conduct interviews, and in most circumstances get our hands on the products too. In other words, we can still do our jobs. While the exploration of a trade show floor would be missed, anyone who has been to MWC or CES over the past few years will tell you that it has become much harder to uncover hidden gems, as media outreach has improved, and smaller companies have been priced out of exhibiting these massive events.

A reduction in the need for more than 100,000 people to all converge at a single event, and an increase in smaller, localized hybrid events, may also help companies meet any new, pandemic-driven sustainability goals, which is likely to include cutting back on business air travel. If future MWC and other previously giant trade shows become less important for media to attend and more about the trade, companies won’t need to send so many people to build, maintain, and staff huge booths that can cost millions of dollars.

Responsibility

The example of Ericsson’s departure and TelcoDR taking advantage of the opportunity will not be the last of its type we see. Regardless of whether organizers like the GSMA or cities like Barcelona want to believe it, the event space has changed, companies’ agendas are changing, and the people who want and need to attend shows like MWC are changing.

Messe Berlin

If global trade fairs like MWC do alter like this, it doesn’t always mean they will be smaller — messaging app Line’s hybrid event at the end of 2020 was its largest yet by attendee numbers — or any less significant, it just means they will look different, and appeal to a different set of people.

The consumer tech companies that make the biggest impact have been slowly edging away from the show itself for a while. They likely get better, more meaningful coverage from the media, in an environment totally under their control. Sure, I’d miss the excitement of the show and the social aspect, but as long as I still get to do my job, I’m happy to accept it makes sense to commit to a new way of doing things, at least for a while.

Vaguely adapting “has-been” events like MWC, CES, and IFA so they can quickly and misguidedly return to the old way of doing things seems short-sighted and money-driven, particularly when it’s not clear companies and people are ready to fully return to them yet. If the “new disruptors” really are jumping on board, it’s the perfect time to disrupt the show, the way it’s held, and who actually needs to attend entirely.

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