MWC 2021: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The biggest tradeshow in mobile technology is back. Will you be?

Your average Joe-smartphone-swiper might not know the name, but they’ll almost certainly be affected by the news coming out of Mobile World Congress.

Typically home to over 2,400 exhibitors, 110,000 attendees and ‘59% of the industry’s most important decision-makers’, the Barcelona-based show was one of the first victims of 2020’s COVID cancellations, scheduled to take place just as lockdown measures and travel bans began to pop up across Europe.

The good news is that it’s back for 2021 in a ‘hybrid’ physical and virtual form, at a later timeslot of 28th June to 1st July. And despite the cancellation of IFA, which was scheduled for later in 2021, MWC organiser GSMA is determined the show will go on.

After over a year on hiatus, there’s a stronger spotlight on the event than ever before – not just from the perspective of new product news and launches, but also from how international events of this scale can work post-pandemic.Below, we take a look at how this year’s show will be run, the news we’re expecting to see, what the future holds for MWC, and we attempt to answer the big question – should you go?

Contactless, COVID-less and more virtual than ever

The GSMA, the mobile industry organisation behind MWC, is taking all measure of precautions to keep attendees to the 2021 show as safe as possible. Making 2021’s edition a hybrid event is the focus, with total physical attendee numbers to the Fira di Barcelona cut by more than half (to around 50,000).

The show was always partially virtual, even if you were there in person. Mobile World Live has a big presence at MWC, broadcasting panel discussions and live segments throughout the day on big screens around the venue as well as online. The difference this year is an increase in the scale and volume of the virtual elements. Details are yet to emerge, but we’d expect to see an uptick in the number of big launches, keynotes and demonstrations that take place via digital stream.

Those who do attend the congress in 2021 have strict health rules to follow. A negative COVID test is currently required before travelling to Barcelona, plus proof is needed before you get entry to the venue. You’ll then need a fresh negative result every 72 hours or you won’t be let back in (note to self: definitely don’t forget your bag on the stand this year).

The event is also contactless. Fittingly, entry will be provided via a digital ticket issued to your smartphone, and payments (usually for the cured ham baguettes and café con leche that power PRs and marketers through the show) will be via NFC. There are plans to increase the size of the entrances into the venue, and more elements of the show will take place in the open air (no bad thing – this is Spain in early summer). On top of all that, there will be test centres and temperature checks throughout the venue.

This year’s hot handsets

So, what’s going to launch? That’s an interesting question for 2021. As MWC usually takes place at the end of February or beginning of March, moving to later in the year – especially to the traditionally fallow summer months – is going to be impacted by product development timelines.

Apple doesn’t take part in MWC. Samsung and Huawei’s flagship launches are usually handled at their own events elsewhere in the city (under normal circumstances), timed to coincide with the event. Both brands still typically have a huge presence in the Fira (Samsung’s stand included a virtual rollercoaster ride in past years).

That doesn’t count out big announcements, though. In 2019, Huawei used MWC to show the world its Huawei Mate X foldable phone, a canny way to dominate headlines and become the standout brand of the event.

Sony and Nokia tend to use MWC as the launchpad for new flagships. However, the later date led both to blink sooner – with Sony’s Xperia 1 III, Xperia 5 III and Xperia 10 III and Nokia’s X, G and C-series all launching in April. So it will be interesting to see if any new devices get some of the spotlight at MWC.

We can also expect to see a strong MWC showing from the likes of ZTE, Xiaomi, Oppo, Honor, Motorola and Alcatel.

It’s also worth noting that MWC is always about much more than just handsets. In fact, they are something of a sideshow compared to the B2B telecoms, infrastructure and software side of the event, with 5G continuing to be a headline trend, alongside connected industry, artificial intelligence and startup innovation. We’d expect a major presence from web platforms and app ecosystems, as usual.

And, of course, there’s always more to see from a consumer hardware point of view. In 2019 we saw everything from laptops to smartwatch-smartphone wearable hybrids and VR and AR headsets. Journalists should be well rewarded, flagship phone or not.

What does the future look like for MWC?

First up, the new summer date is a one-off, and MWC will revert to its usual February timing from 2022, according to the GSMA.

Beyond that we don’t know what the future will look like. But with much of the marketing, PR and communications sector – not to mention media and journalism – looking to move to more flexible and remote working, we expect MWC to become an even more important show in the years to come, both because of its salient subject matter and because of the social element of the event.

There’s no way to put a value on the networking opportunities at a show like MWC, whether meticulously planned or serendipitous, but great things happen when 110,000 people with the same professional interests find themselves in one place. And that’s without considering the pre-briefing events often used by big brands to line up writers with the info they need to cover launches and announcements.

Plus, clichéd as it sounds, for communications practitioners and PR professionals, the relationships with media you can develop from hosting press trips, dinners and evening events can end up invaluable. We don’t see MWC going anywhere.

The big question: should you stay or go?

Let’s deal with the big issue first – safety. From what the organisers have said, it sounds as though every reasonable precaution is being taken or considered. The key is the negative COVID test requirement. If these are enforced with the same rigour as badge collection in a usual year, we think attendees can be confident of a hygienic show environment.

The next question is whether it’s worth going to a show with less than 50% of its usual attendee base and potentially without the usual headline-grabbing launches. Again, we say yes – for several reasons. There’s no substitute for the face-to-face interaction and networking at events like MWC, and following a year in lockdown, the appetite for socialising will be particularly strong.

On top of that, even with news being available virtually, there’s no substitute for getting extra comment first-hand, or handling a device before its announced. Nor the serendipity of wandering the show halls and discovering the next big thing in mobile. The majority of devices at MWC don’t launch to retail immediately, so any media and influencers looking for hands-on pieces will need to be at the show to actually experience new devices first-hand.

Personally, we can’t wait to get back to the Fira and see what wonders this year’s MWC has in store. For round-ups of the latest news, be sure to stay tuned to the Fever blog.

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