Then events began to disappear. The next big trade show, Mobile World Congress (MWC)—the biggest phone show of the year—was scheduled for February 24-27 in Barcelona, Spain. In 2019, MWC attracted 109,674 attendees from 198 countries, including 3,640 international media and industry analysts. More were expected this year.

Exhibitors began withdrawing from MWC in early February with LG pulling out, then ZTE canceling a press conference, and then Ericsson—all over concerns about the coronavirus epidemic. They were followed in succession by NVIDIA, Intel, Vivo, Sony, Amazon, and NTT DOCOMO. By mid-February, Cisco, Nokia, BT, and HMD joined the list.

With just weeks to go before the opening, John Hoffman, CEO of the hosting group GSMA, announced, “With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.” The economic impact of shuttering MWC was estimated to be €492 million and 14,100 local part-time jobs.


MWC was just the beginning of an international contraction with cancellations of a variety of events used by the tech sector to showcase products and inform peers and the public about their current projects. For a representative list of more than 100 of the top events around the world now at risk, you can check the Bizzabo Blog listing of conferences in 2020 (

The blog categorizes the events in four groupings:

Conferences: Bizzabo calls these the backbone of the tech events industry. They can be B2B or B2C, and their purpose is to teach, inform, or train those attending.

Trade shows: These are the showcases, like CES and MWC, and are often only open to buyers, company reps, and the press.

Summits: This is an odd category that tends to be smaller than conferences and limited to higher-level executives.

Seminars: The blog defines these as “mini conferences that are much smaller in scope and sometimes only last one day.”

The loss of these opportunities this year is difficult to measure. Today, many directors are scrambling to reinvent the events in virtual formats. What is learned by those doing these translations certainly might shape the future of the conferences and expos in 2021.

The essential problem to overcome involves our perception of reality. How do you close the distance between an event you attend with thousands of others and one that you watch replayed on YouTube? Further, for the MWC attendees, what can replace the ability to make a judgment about the quality of materials and workmanship for a new phone by picking it up and handling it? There’s no haptic glove that will assure you “this has a quality build or feels pretty cheap in the hand.”

One of the more interesting case studies to come out of this survival test will be the one that addresses the hacker conferences. These are often the most entertaining or even dramatic shows, with a mix of attendees made up of hackers, phreaks, cybersecurity professionals, and government security people, sometimes not self-identified as such. The most current listing of events shows 44 of them either canceled or postponed from March to June.

This year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest held at the CanSecWest Applied Security conference in March in Vancouver, Canada, offered optional remote participation. The organizers would execute their exploits for them. Contestants watched as their hacks appeared on screens at the conference site. When asked, at the end, if they had any reservations or complaints about the distant setup, one contestant said it was definitely more fun when they were able to be in Vancouver in person.

At the conclusion of the contest, two directors discussed the future.

“Are we going to stay all virtual, or are we going back to Vancouver next year? Predictions?”

The answer was revealing. “My prediction is I hope we are back in Vancouver next year. But I think we are going to look at virtual as something we can continue to do. It opens up the playing field. You know, people who are not willing to travel or are not able to travel.”

Stay tuned for what might become an evolution.

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