MWC Preview: Will the economy impact MWC attendance?

As the fourth-quarter and year-end 2008 earnings results are rolling in, the wireless industry is certainly feeling the impact of the world's economic turmoil. Revenues are down, layoffs are up and traveling to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress Feb. 17-19 may seem like an unnecessary expense for some wireless firms. Or will it?

Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer of the GSMA, says that despite the economy, hotel bookings for the Mobile World Congress are up 2 percent and registration numbers are strong. In fact, the GSMA expects that there will be more than 50,000 attendees at this year's event. "Some companies are saying they are bringing fewer people but things are tracking well," O'Hara says.

Of course, the economy will be a key focus of panel discussions at the conference. The opening keynote session, entitled "Sustaining Growth in Challenging Times," will feature leaders from some of the world's most prominent carriers including Vodafone, Vimplecom and Telefonica discussing ways to drive investment in wireless and keep growing.

Even though some companies are sending fewer employees than they have in the past, many firms are still spending on marketing and press relations. O'Hara said that exhibitors wanted more hospitality space this year. In fact, demand for hospitality rooms has increased by 20 percent over 2008.  

But don't expect the same party atmosphere that you may have experienced in the past at MWC. The economy is causing many companies to forego their usual blowout parties and late-night festivities. Instead, look for more subdued gatherings--small cocktail parties catering to just the few, key customers. One exception to this rule is the GSMA's annual awards gala at the National Palace on Tuesday evening. This event is still a big draw for the industry elite. 

As always, the Fierce editorial team will be bringing you all the news from the Mobile World Congress. Jason Ankeny, Phil Goldstein and I will be filing live reports from the show. And if you see us wandering the halls of the Fira, be sure to say hello. --Sue