Lower Attendance Might Be the Biggest Story at Mobile World Congress

Talking to friends and colleagues who have attended Mobile World Congress (or 3GSM, as it used to be known) over the last decade, I was struck by a recurring theme: this year’s show is SO quiet!

Our suspicions that attendance would be down were raised in the second half of 2008, when we saw all the major industry players implementing travel bans. Since then, belts have been tightened further. Arriving at Barcelona airport, it was immediately obvious something had changed. The usual scrum for taxis had disappeared, with no apparent queue throughout the day. Below are pictures from 2008 and 2009, and the difference is obvious.

Barcelona airport, 2008  Barcelona airport, 2009

As we drove into the city, buildings were devoid of the flamboyant advertising that usually greets those converging on Barcelona. Registration for an entry pass was a remarkably orderly affair. The credit crunch was most evident when we were told that the customary free travel on the local metro system had been withdrawn this year. When I asked why, I was told by the amiable Spanish host that it was “because of the crisis”.

Although there are many thousands of visitors here, the showground is a shadow of its former self. There’s little hustle and bustle as delegates rush to see the latest new products. I’m certainly not complaining, as it makes the job of reporting of the show less stressful, but it raises some significant questions.

Firstly, is the downturn more acute that we forecast? On Sunday, the former head of Nokia, Jorma Ollila, said he believed the global recession will last two to three years. Nokia’s CFO, Rick Simonson, confirmed at the show that he’s expecting a “very tough” market throughout 2009 and extending into 2010. The new head of Samsung Mobile, J K Shin, went further, ominously pronouncing that the “global downturn is a threat to the entire mobile industry”.

The other question is whether giant trade shows like Mobile World Congress, CES and, to a lesser extent, CTIA are sustainable in their current shape and size.

Many executives responsible for planning big industry events have told me they’re becoming sceptical about the merit of large set-piece events. They appear to be gravitating toward dedicated events where they can control the focus on their own messages rather than fighting for attention among a blizzard of announcements.

The organisers of major shows are going to have take these changes into account when planning next year’s events. It may be that they too will have to reflect the broader trend of mobile customers expecting more for less. This may see such events slimming down and becoming more affordable for exhibitors and less expensive for delegates.

In Barcelona, a simple decision such as withdrawing complimentary travel on the metro may prove to be an error of judgement. Small things like this could play a subtle role in discouraging regular visitors, who inject massive amounts of money into the local economy.