One of tech's biggest events plans to be in-person this year. Big companies are already bailing
Industry trade group GMSA on Monday announced plans to hold an in-person Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in June. Mobile World Congress meetings will be held in Barcelona until 2024. (David Zorrakino/Europa Press/Getty Images)
Clare Duffy, CNN
Published Wednesday, March 10, 2021 6:31PM EST
(CNN) -- The wireless industry is having déjà vu this week.
Industry trade group GSMA on Monday announced plans to hold an in-person Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in June — and a string of high-profile companies, including Ericsson and Sony, have already said they won't attend.
The situation is reminiscent of last year, when Mobile World Congress, the wireless industry's biggest annual trade show, was slated to go ahead as normal in late February. But the world was coming to grips with the scary reality of coronavirus. After more than a dozen major tech firms pulled out, the event was scrapped at the last minute.
It was one of the first of many large industry events forced to change plans or cancel because of the pandemic.
Now, GSMA is trying again, in what could be a test run for the return of large, in-person tech events.
This year will likely be different, now that organizers have a year's worth of knowledge about the virus and many countries have begun rolling out vaccinations. (Last year, before the event was canceled, safety plans included health checks, additional cleaning and barring any attendees who had visited China in the prior two weeks.)
The group on Monday released a detailed health and safety plan for the event. This year's attendees will be required to wear masks, comply with social distancing rules, participate in temperature checks and produce a negative Covid-19 test to access the venue, among other stipulations. In past years, Mobile World Congress has hosted more than 100,000 attendees, and only about half that number are expected at the 2021 event. It will also be supplementing the event with virtual components.
Despite those health precautions, some are likely to be wary of attending an event with tens of thousands of attendees at a time when the pandemic remains a threat and concerns about Covid-19 variants have ramped up.
Swedish telecom giant Ericsson was the first to announce this week that it will not participate.
"In view of the continuing impacts from Covid-19 and our primary consideration towards our people, their health and well-being, we have decided not to participate (in) MWC 2021," Ericsson said in a statement. "The decision, whilst regrettable, reflects our precautionary approach to managing the pandemic from a people and travel perspective whilst vaccination programs are rolled out globally."
The company said it looks forward "to the opportunity to rejoin future events."
Sony quickly followed suit. As the world "shifts towards digital and online opportunities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Sony Mobile will communicate in ways that can deliver our exciting product news to a wider audience," it said.
Nokia and Facebook on Wednesday joined the chorus, both saying they will participate virtually but have no physical presence at the event. Facebook last year implemented a policy that its employees would not attend in-person events through June 2021.
"The health of our employees, customers and partners is of paramount importance to us," Nokia said in a statement. "Given the international nature of the event and with the global vaccine roll out still in its early phases, we have made the considered decision to instead participate in only the virtual event."
Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark is listed on the Mobile World Congress 2021 website as a keynote speaker. It's not clear whether the company's decision not to attend in-person will affect that plan.
Several other companies, including Cisco and Intel, told CNN Business they are still weighing options for participating.
GSMA clearly saw at least some of this coming: In its Monday announcement, the group said this year's Mobile World Congress will be a hybrid event, with online portions for those uncomfortable with attending in person.
"We respect the decisions that have been made by a handful of exhibitors and look forward to welcoming all companies back to Barcelona for future editions of MWC," a GSMA spokesperson said in a statement to CNN Business Wednesday.
"We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021. This is why we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform that will ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience."
The return of in-person conferences
Over the past year, major tech conferences and product launch events have been held virtually. While attendees miss out on the networking opportunities that come from roaming the floor of a large exhibition hall, industry experts point out that the online format allows more people from around the world to attend. Big tech firms could get more exposure to potential new customers from areas that are typically underserved..
An in-person conference could be especially valuable for the wireless industry in the midst of the massive shift from 4G LTE network technology to next-generation 5G. That change requires coordination among various countries and many different types of tech companies.
GSMA has pointed to the success of a conference it held in Shanghai last week, which drew 25,000 in-person participants and 175,000 virtual attendees.
"Our partners, exhibitors, board, and local businesses' support was heartening, and everyone contributed to creating a safe environment by sticking to the safety measures," GSMA Director General Mats Granryd said in a statement Monday of the Shanghai event. "I am now looking forward to MWC21 Barcelona; it is time to bring together the mobile ecosystem in-person."
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