By Joan Faus and Douglas Busvine
BARCELONA/BERLIN (Reuters) - The organisers of the Mobile World Congress, the telecoms industry's biggest annual gathering, said on Wednesday they were postponing next year's event to late June to make it possible to convene safely despite the coronavirus pandemic.
MWC 2021, originally scheduled for early March, will now be held in Barcelona, Spain, from June 28 to July 1. This year's congress was cancelled at the last minute as the virus spread around the world.
The event, which combines a glitzy trade show with a frenzy of executive networking, will be face to face but attendance will be down from the 110,000 who traditionally converge in the Catalan capital as winter turns to spring.
"It's going to be physical. It's going to be face to face. But it's going to have a bigger virtual component," said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, the industry association that hosts the congress.
"Having 110,000-plus events is less interesting - getting the right people is more interesting," he told Reuters in an interview.
The congress has previously given a $500 million lift to the local economy - a boost sorely needed as rates of infection soar. The blow to travel and tourism from the pandemic has been devastating, with only three in 10 hotels now open in Barcelona.
The GSMA, which counts 750 operators and 400 more companies in the wider industry as members, scratched this year's event after an exodus by exhibitors. Travel, auto and technology shows quickly followed, forcing organisers to adapt to online formats.
Despite initial criticism, the lobby group assuaged its critics by offering refunds and credits towards future shows. It has committed to keeping the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at least until 2024.
Seventy-eight of the top-100 exhibitors had already signed up for next year, the GSMA's Granryd said, a number that could reach the eighties after the event got pushed back to the Mediterranean summer.
The delay seeks to buy time to strengthen hygiene measures around a "touchless" event that, in one social distancing feature, will replace tickets with admission using facial recognition technology.
Granryd expressed hope that, by next summer, it will be possible for delegates to take quick COVID-19 tests at their hotel before heading to the event. He also expressed confidence that telecoms bosses would have access to vaccines, now under development, once they become available.
The GSMA said it would also move up the Chinese edition of next year's Mobile World Congress, held in Shanghai, to Feb. 23-25 in what amounts to a calendar swap with the main event in Barcelona.
(Additional reporting by Inti Landauro; Writing by Douglas Busvine; editing by Jason Neely, Kirsten Donovan and Tomasz Janowski)