GSMA to MWC20 Exhibitors: ‘Take It or Leave It’ on COVID-19 Refund Package

John Byrne – Service Director, Global Technology Telecom and Software

Summary Bullets:

  • Since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of its flagship Barcelona event, MWCA exhibitors have been waiting for details on a rebate or refund program.
  • The package announced March 25 provides a cash refund for smaller exhibitors but realistically represents a ‘take it or leave it’ package of rebates toward future events.

Since the GSMA made the difficult decision to cancel its annual conference in Barcelona in February, exhibitors have been awaiting details on the association’s refund package promised by the end of March. Now that offer has been announced, and while cash refunds are being offered for some, the vast majority of exhibitors will need to accept a package of rebates – albeit generous – toward future shows. However, the package looks punitive toward exhibitors that acted responsibly in withdrawing from the conference before it was officially cancelled.

The terms of the GSMA’s package are clear; clients with spend above £5,000 can either get a 50% cash refund (capped at a maximum of £150,000) or a series of rebates on future events:

  • 65% credit on MWC2021
  • 35% credit on MWC2022
  • 25% credit on MWC2023

The GSMA announced that MWC2021 rates will roll back to those used in 2019, and exhibitors spending less than £5,000 can either take advantage of the same credits or get a full cash refund.

That’s all well and good except for a very important detail inexplicably included as a footnote to the GSMA announcement: “Eligibility for a cash component to the financial package is for those exhibitors who did not cancel their attendance at MWC Barcelona 2020.” Huh? In other words, if you cancelled before the GSMA called off the event, no cash option for you.

Put another way: If you chose not to ignore the growing warning signs over the coming COVID-19 crisis and cancelled your attendance before the GSMA belatedly acknowledged the obvious and cancelled the conference, the GSMA is punishing you for protecting your customers and employees.

The list of exhibitors pulling out of MWC Barcelona this year is not small: LG Electronics was the first big name to pull out on February 5; two days later, Ericsson and NVIDIA both announced they would withdraw, setting into motion days of soul-searching across the industry. Major names, including AT&T, Amazon, Cisco, and McAfee, had all cancelled by February 11; and on February 12, Nokia, Vodafone, Rakuten, and a total of over 40 companies had announced they were pulling out. The GSMA finally cancelled the event later that day, but by then, it was already glaringly obvious the event could not go forward.

To be clear, the ‘take it or leave it’ package offered up by the GSMA is very generous for vendors interested in continuing to participate in the industry’s biggest annual event. However, it does not account for a number of possibilities: First, some exhibitors frankly may need that cash now to account for downturns related to COVID-19. Second, a change in circumstances in the coming year – for example, an acquisition – may mean a company no longer requires exhibitor space next year, let alone in 2023.

And finally, the open question is whether COVID-19 may turn out to be the catalyst for a dramatic change in event attendance that could impact future iterations of MWC along with a number of other conferences. That seems unlikely now; however, four months ago, all that has transpired since seemed unimaginable to most of us.

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