Marek’s Take: Will trade shows return to their pre-pandemic glory?

fira barcelona
The Fira Barcelona is home to Mobile World Congress, which in 2021 had an in-person attendance of about 20,000.(Getty Images)
Marek's take

The telecom industry has always had a love for in-person trade shows and conferences. For nearly three decades I’ve been reporting on telecom and spending more days than I can remember inside conference halls and meeting rooms in cities around the world. Like many in the industry, I thrived on live events where it was possible to talk to executives face-to-face, attend panel discussions and see the latest tech demonstrations.

Plus, I think that the telecom industry has always loved a good debate — I remember several fun discussions about the pros and cons of WiMAX vs. LTE or, more recently, the predictions about what will be the winning use cases for 5G.

And fortunately for those of us that enjoy live events, there has always been support for these in-person events because marketing executives at telecom firms needed a place to showcase their brands and tout their thought leadership.

Of course, with trade shows and in-person conferences halted for most of 2020 and half of 2021 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, many people are wondering whether the pace of telecom-focused trade shows and in-person conferences will return to its pre-pandemic levels.

Last month all eyes were on the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) event, which boldly opted to hold its live event in Barcelona, Spain, after pushing it back several months from its standard date that typically falls in February every year. The result was that MWC had the difficult distinction of being the first major tech conference to cancel in 2020 because of the growing threat of Covid-19, and of being the first major tech event to bring attendees back for an in-person event in the 2021 post-Covid-19 era.

The hybrid virtual-and-in-person MWC that took place in late June definitely had a different look and feel and its in-person attendance, which the GSMA said was around 20,000, was well below the 100,000-plus attendance it had been in the pre-Covid era.

Plus, many large telecom firms, including Ericsson, Qualcomm, Samsung and others (too numerous to list), declined to attend the event in-person and instead participated virtually. Many of these companies cited concerns about employee safety as their reason for not attending.

Nevertheless, it does raise the question about whether the slew of telecom events that are now on the calendar for the remainder of 2021 and also in 2022, will be able to recapture the attention of the industry and collect the sponsorship dollars that they once did.

Mary Clark, a long-time wireless industry veteran who previously worked as chief marketing officer and product officer at Synchronoss and is now a consultant, attended this year’s MWC in Barcelona. Clark, who has been attending telecom events for nearly 30 years, praised the GSMA for hosting the event despite all the obstacles it faced. “Everyone was thrilled to be there,” Clark said. “I think expectations were reasonably set but people really needed this. They needed to interact in person.”

Likewise, in a statement the GSMA said that it “believes that the success of MWC 2021 reflects the appetite of our industry and others to reconvene in person after so long apart.”

However, while Clark said that she definitely believes trade shows will return, she also had some skepticism about whether they will come back to their full pre-pandemic glory. “I think the footprints of booths may not be as big. And companies may not send 40 people but will send 15,” she said, adding that she expects the finance departments at companies will question the value in obtaining that much booth space and may put more pressure on marketing departments to be more cost conscious than they have been before.

Clark also believes that most companies are still committed to in-person events. “Being perceived as the thought leader is a big part of biz dev and sales,” she said.

Rise of virtual events

But many in the industry believe there will be greater reliance on virtual programming. In fact, the GSMA said that it will include a virtual element to MWC 2022, which will happen next February in Barcelona. 

“Nothing replaces an in-person event but we appreciate that the landscape has probably shifted indelibly in the face of Covid-19. And our strategy of inclusion of virtual elements will be, to some degree, led by the preference of our community,” the organization said in a statement.

The GSMA added that it hopes that the MWC hybrid event will serve as a “blueprint” for other industry events going forward.

Part of the reason virtual events have become more appealing is that the content is better. In fact, speakers at virtual events today are often high-level executives where in the past these events often had difficultly securing well-known “names” in the industry.   

But now the challenge for companies may be in deciding who goes to live events vs. who participates in virtual events from home. And for conference producers, it may be time to invest in an intuitive virtual event platform that is appealing to all those distant desktop viewers.