The cancellation of the world's most important mobile trade fair was the "only option" in the face of "force majeure" after coronavirus fears led dozens of companies to close the next show, organizers said Thursday.
GSMA, the mobile commerce association that organizes the annual fair, said Wednesday night that it would suspend the massive trade show that would be held in Barcelona between February 24 and 27, and that it is scheduled to attract some 110,000 participants.
The Mobile World Congress 2020 is one of the biggest events in the world that was canceled so far due to the virus.
"We looked at the data and yesterday we concluded that the vast majority of those who planned to attend were not going to be there," said GSMA Executive President John Hoffman at a press conference in Barcelona.
"We seek to postpone the event, and again, although it sounds good, it is impossible to predict when this situation will end. Therefore, it could not be done."
Known as COVID-19, the epidemic has so far claimed 1,367 lives and infected almost 60,000 people, the vast majority in China, which traditionally has a strong presence in the MWC, a key date in the technology calendar to show the latest devices and innovations.
But during the past week, the number of companies that retired has skyrocketed, despite repeated guarantees from the Spanish government and local authorities that the health risk was low in a country where only two cases of coronavirus on the high seas.
Just a few hours before the announcement, Vodafone, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom, Great Britain BT and Rakuten from Japan withdrew, following in the footsteps of Intel, Facebook, Cisco and Vivo of China.
"It is impossible for us to celebrate this event at this juncture, it is really a situation of force majeure," said GSMA CEO Mats Granryd, told reporters, saying it was still too early to count the cost of cancellation.
Establishing whether this was a case of force majeure given that the Spanish authorities did not declare a health emergency will be key in deciding who will pay the estimated cancellation bill of about 100 million euros ($ 110 million).
That bill would include a wide range of expenses, from the cost of canceling the exhibition space to hotel reservations or the reimbursement of prepaid entrance tickets.
But Stephane Richard, executive director of French telecommunications giant Orange, who also serves as president of GSMA, defended the decision to cancel as "prudent," saying that organizers should not bear the costs.
"It is not clear if the insurance covers this specific case," BFM Business told French television on Thursday.
"We cannot impose the cost of this cancellation on the GSMA, it concerns everyone."
This year, the big event was expected to inject 492 million euros ($ 536 million) into the local economy.
Although Spanish officials expressed their understanding of the decision, they insisted there were no compelling health reasons to do so.
"We regret the cancellation of the Mobile World Congress, a decision that, according to experts and available information, was not due to public health problems in Spain," Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote on Twitter echoing the minister's previous comments of Economy, Nadia Calvino.
"Based on the information currently available and the recommendations of public health experts, there is no public health problem that can prevent or put at risk an event like this in the country," he told COPE radio.
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