The most serious concern arising from Wednesday's cancellation - amid coronavirus concerns - of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) by its organizer, GSMA, is the economic impact that it will have on businesses and on the city of Barcelona. And for the moment, it seems, nobody knows to whom they should take their reclamations on this issue, with the government administrations involved saying that "it is still too early to know the economic impact". During a press conference held this morning by GSMA and public authorities to give further details of the cancellation of the congress, organizing CEO John Hoffman used two words predominantly in answering questions on whether the organizers will pay any form of compensation to the companies affected: force majeure.
"It's a force majeure situation" said Hoffman, referring to the common legal term for natural disasters or other unavoidable circumstances that prevent contract terms from being fulfilled. "So the contract terms will be based on whatever people's contracts talk about in a force majeure situation." He also added that "we cannot speculate on what kind of contracts are out there and we suggest that everyone look at their own."
The point, however, is that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not classified the coronavirus outbreak as a global epidemic, which would provide a clear motive for understanding the predicament as a force majeure. On the contrary, yesterday the WHO itself issued a statement calling for calm and stating that "there is no reason" to suspend events or business relations.
Asked about this, Hoffman responded: "It's very clear that the GSMA made this decision because of coronavirus, and it was impossible for us to keep the event going." At the same time, GSMA President Mats Graryd had stated that he was not being at all critical of Barcelona or Spain, but that "this is a force majeure situation and there is no way you can be sure in such a situation". In addition, the organizers said they had "several statements from both the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and WHO that are in line with the decision we have made."
Meanwhile, the attitude of the public administrations present at the press conference was largely aimed at calming coronavirus fears. In the words of the Catalan digital administration minister, Jordi Puigneró, "this is in no way a problem of a lack of confidence in the health service in Catalonia or Spain". The messages were, on the one hand, absolute calm about the virus and full backing for the health system, and on the other, the cancellation of one of the most important business events worldwide due to "causes of force majeure". In the end, one of these two factors will have to outweigh the other when it comes to decide who will assume the economic responsibilities.
No one at the press conference dared to put numbers on the economic impact of a non-MWC. But if last year's edition is used as a starting point, it is estimated that the 'Mobile' would have left almost 500 million euros in the city of Barcelona, with more than 100,000 people attending - including 8,000 CEOs - and about 14,000 short-term employment contracts.