The past year has been a devastating one for the conference industry. It’s certainly an issue we’ve grappled with here at TechCrunch, as we’ve worked to move our programming to a virtual setting. Clearly each individual case calls for an individual solution, dependent on geography, attendance and a variety of other factors.
IFA has proven itself bullish on the in-person element. The Berlin tech show was one of a small handful of these sorts of events to go on with the show in Europe. The organization held an in-person event in September, albeit at a dramatically scaled-back rate.
“To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” director Jens Heithecker told me of last year’s event, which scaled back to around 170 exhibitors from 2,300.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization is planning to come back big this year, in spite of prolonged concerns around COVID-19 and its variants. A press release announcing the show’s fall return is downright celebratory.
“With the world on course to emerge from the pandemic, IFA Berlin is set to take place as a full-scale, real-life event from 3 - 7 September 2021,” the company writes. “Huge interest from brands, manufacturers and retailers across all industry sectors to exhibit, network and co-innovate on location in Berlin.”
The organization highlights some health and safety measures that are being carried over from last year’s event. But while it’s not quite ready to talk scale yet, the organization is highlighting a number of new tracks for the conference.
“As always, keeping our visitors and exhibitors safe is our top priority,” it said in a statement. “Of course, with all our precautions to ensure everybody’s good health, we don’t expect IFA Berlin 2021 to set new records. However, the trend is clear: IFA Berlin is set for a full-scale comeback, to lead our industry once more.”
Over in Spain, the GSMA is still working on its messaging as a number of large companies have already announced they intend to only attend the show “virtually.”
Organizers offered TechCrunch the following statement:
We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021, but we are pleased that exhibitors including Verizon*, Orange and Kasperksy are excited to join us in Barcelona. To ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience, we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform. The in-person and virtual options are provided so that all friends of MWC Barcelona can attend and participate in a way that works for them. We respect the decisions that have been made by some exhibitors and are working with them to move their participation to the virtual platform.
[*Disclosure: Verizon owns TechCrunch]
Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle and Ericsson have already announced they won’t be attending the show in person. Other large names are seemingly undecided. The whole thing is reminiscent of the lead-up to last year’s event, which was ultimately canceled.
The necessity of these large events was called into question prior to the pandemic, but the shift to virtual events has truly brought the topic into sharp relief. It’s true that there’s still value in an in-person event for hardware, specifically, but many have learned to adapt to a virtual setting. Even though if the last CES taught us anything, it’s that there are still a whole lot of kinks to work out with the system, especially as it pertains to prioritizing content all effectively being channeled through the same funnel.
People’s willingness to attend these events is based on a broad range of factors. At the very base level, there’s a question of personal comfortability (I can't be the only one who has a visceral reaction every time they see crowded photos from past events). For many, it will be a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly attend a large indoor conference. There are factors like vaccinations and a particular region’s handling of the pandemic (all of which can wildly swing in the course of several months).
Just today, Germany’s Health Minister sounded the red alert, asking states to tighten restrictions. "We know from last autumn what happens when we don't act quickly," Jens Spahn warned the media.
There are a slew of other factors, including a potential attendee’s location and their workplace’s willingness to approve travel. Many companies have restricted business travel to all but the most essential trips. Depending on what you do for a living, your definition of “essential” may vary. But given how much can potentially change in that time, the soundest strategy for many is planning to tackle things remotely.
Earlier this week, the GSMA sent out its own email to previous attendees titled, “Why do you believe MWC Barcelona 2021 will take place?” The note seems to be a direct response to stories about exhibitors opting for a virtual presence.
“Depending on when you are reading this, we will be about 12 weeks away from the doors opening for MWC21 in Barcelona,” CEO John Hoffman wrote. “To say that the last year has been disruptive is an understatement and my thoughts are with anyone who has been impacted by COVID-19. I am not only hopeful about the future, but I am also excited about convening our ecosystem at MWC21. We recognise that not everyone will be able to attend in person and that is fine as we will augment our physical event with our MWC virtual program bringing you content from the show.”
Canceling a flagship show one year could have been utterly devastating. For many of these organizers -- and the local governments who rely on tourism money -- two years might seem unthinkable. MWC’s virtual strategy in year one of the pandemic was, understandably, undercooked.
More than a year into this, however, the GSMA and organizations like it hopefully have more robust strategies in place. The fact of the matter is that going virtual isn’t a one- or two-off. For many companies and people profoundly impacted by the pandemic, this is what the future looks like.