Consumer Tech Trade Shows Are Changing For the Better

Have massive consumer electronics trade shows like Mobile World Congress, CES, and IFA had their day? Judging by the trepidation shown towards the rapidly approaching, in-person MWC 2021, it seems so, even if organizers haven’t fully accepted it yet.

There are early signs that the companies that want to attend seem to be changing, and should this continue, the people who need to be in attendance will change too. Due to this, next year we may see smaller, less glitzy, more business-based events as organizers begin to accept how the world has changed since early 2020, and start to understand the mega gatherings of before are less desirable and make less sense than before.

MWC 2021

Mobile World Congress 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but organizers pledged to be back in 2021, and sure enough, the GSMA — the industry group behind the event — will hold an in-person event from June 28 to July 1. It says it expects 50,000 attendees and has published a list of worryingly standard health and safety precautions in an attempt to prevent the show from becoming a hotbed of coronavirus infections.

people walking around at Mobile World Congress

Not all companies are convinced it’s worth the expense or risk to attend, and echoing last year’s exodus ahead of the show, Nokia, Sony, Ericsson, Oracle, and now Google have all announced they will not make the trip to Barcelona, Spain for MWC this year. Google’s departure is a blow. For anyone who hasn’t attended MWC before, Google has always added a lot of fun to the show with extensive, interactive indoor and outdoor booths and exhibition spaces, and even an always-popular line of collectible pins for attendees to grab.

It’s unlikely these will be the last companies to pull out of the show, as there are still weeks to go before the event is scheduled to start. However, rather than kill the show, the shuffling of companies keen to exhibit may just be a sign the show, and associated landscape, is changing. The GSMA filled Ericsson’s space at the event quickly, selling it to a company called TelcoDR. What’s interesting is TelcoDR doesn’t have a traditional product. It’s a consultancy, advising telecoms companies on how to leverage the cloud and absolutely business-focused.

“We are changing the conversation at MWC Barcelona from the ‘Has Beens’ to the ‘New Disruptors,’” TelcoDR writes about attending MWC. Rather than the usual suspects on the list of companies attending, it’s just as possible that the trade show itself is the has-been, as it and others shift away from welcoming massive companies and huge product launches, and towards firms like TelcoDR, which are more about influencing the industry from a business perspective.

Should this happen, MWC will subsequently become less attractive to consumer electronics brands and the press alike.

It has never been about the press

The media has never made up the majority of MWC, or any other trade show, attendees. The operative word is, “trade,” and most of the people at these shows are “business” people. Media is still an integral part of the trade show experience, but it’s not the primary reason these shows exist, and as many companies have come to realize, the needs of the press can be served equally as well (and sometimes even better) outside the show itself.

CES 2019 Crowd Hero Shot
David McNew/Getty Images

Samsung is a good example. For a while now it has held any MWC press event, where the latest products are shown off, outside of the show at a separate venue. Not only that, but it has greatly varied the day and date of doing so over the past few years, to the point where its early-year announcements have not actually coincided with MWC at all. It has still attended MWC, but the media has usually already seen everything it has on display. Why? Because MWC isn’t about the press, it’s about business.

Samsung’s treatment of MWC isn’t unique. Apple doesn’t attend at all, preferring to hold its own events locally, while Huawei — a major MWC attendee — also traditionally holds an offsite press event. As a member of the press, I often spend an equal or sometimes even greater amount of time at events spread around the city of Barcelona, rather than on the MWC show floor itself.

Many consumer electronics companies have been making tentative moves in this direction for a while, and now there is more motivation than ever to fully embrace what could be a very positive change, by switching to s