Fira Barcelona Montjuic

Trade Shows Uncertain Times

Image by Dominick Vietor

Barcelona. After the pandemic forced the cancellation of exhibitions and conferences earlier this year, Fira Barcelona —the city’s fairgrounds organization— was hoping to reopen in September with a limited number of small shows.

Over the summer, Catalunya and Barcelona reopened most economic activities, hoping to attract international tourists and conference delegates. But fear of contagion and travel restrictions imposed by several countries meant that did not happen. While some tourists from nearby European countries came to the city, the tourist industry suffered Its most significant decline ever.

Opening up too quickly turned out to be a disaster for everybody around. Fortunately, the authorities are now aware that when the infection rate is declining, that is time to continue enforcing the same measures, not relaxing them. This could be difficult to explain to the thousands of businesses forced to close their doors, not knowing if they could survive.

Trade shows and conferences are out for the rest of the winter season.

In September, after going through a complete overhaul of the facilities to comply with the “new normal” requirements, Fira Barcelona held three physical conferences in their Montjuic pavilions, Biz Barcelona, the FHG (Food, Hospitality, and Gastronomic) Forum, and the Salo Ocupacio (Employment Fair). These conferences targeted mostly locals. Some talks were streamed online to grab a wider audience who could not or did not want to visit the conference halls. 

Then suddenly, the second wave of Covid-19 hit again, forcing the regional and national governments to impose new restrictions. A new State of Emergency was recently declared by the Spanish government to provide the legal framework. The new conditions are forcing Fira Barcelona to cancel all plans to host physical shows for the rest of this year. The organization pushed some of them back to next year and created virtual editions for other events, trying to keep the conference business alive.

Earlier this year, when the GSMA decided to cancel the Mobile World Congress, it was not just because of the virus —the pandemic was not officially declared at the time—, it was because many of the most prominent exhibitors had decided to cancel to protect themselves, their customers, and their employees. 

Postponed conferences could not happen at all.

Conference organizers hope that by the end of March we will have contained the virus and have a vaccine available, so events can be organized again with the physical presence of exhibitors, speakers, and delegates. 

In September, the GSMA and Fira Barcelona announced the postponement of Mobile World Congress 2021 to the end of June. 

Last week, Fira Barcelona and the Industrial Internet Consortium, organizers of the IoT Solutions World Congress, confirmed that the conference would not happen in May, as it was announced earlier. It has been postponed again until next October.

The recent announcement that a vaccine could be available by the end of this year with massive distribution by the first quarter of 2021 gives conference organizers hope that travel could resume soon. That, unfortunately, won’t happen until the summer, depending on the real effect of the vaccine, how widely it is distributed, and public confidence in the results.

The GSMA has said nothing yet regarding another delay for MWC21. However, considering that Spain has approved the State of Emergency until the second week of May, it is highly unlikely that the conference could be held in June or any time during the summer.

Additionally, as happened earlier this year, many companies are overly concerned about allowing their executives to travel until the Covid-19 pandemic is totally under control, which is unlikely to occur in 2021. Large companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, Huawei, and others will probably discourage their employees from traveling abroad and attending or organizing trade shows. In that case, those events will be limited to local attendees or will need to be canceled altogether.

In Barcelona, a large portion of the city’s economy depends on trade shows and professional conferences.

Last year, Fira Barcelona hosted over 2.5 million exhibition and conference attendees at its facilities. Massive trade shows such as Alimentaria and the Mobile World Congress attract over 100,000 attendees each year, providing direct jobs to over 30,000 people before, during, and after the shows. 

Additionally, trade shows are critical to the rest of the city’s economy, particularly to hotels, restaurants, and taxi drivers. The city of Barcelona estimates that MWC alone adds over €500 million to the local economy.

Next year, it is highly unlikely that the number of conference attendees will reach the levels of 2019. We’ll probably have to wait until 2022 or 2023 to get there. 

Additionally, online conferences are getting much better. It wouldn’t be surprising if organizations keep some parts of the shows online, doing a mix of local presence and online exhibitions, and reducing the number of travelers.

In any case, for most international shows, organizations such as Fira Barcelona need to reevaluate their business model and adapt to the new reality. As with other creative destructions, it will hurt the existing business, impacting thousands of people, but creating new post-pandemic trade show opportunities.

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