by KELVIN CHAN and MAE ANDERSON AP Business Writers, Associated Press | February 13, 2020

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Organizers of the world's biggest mobile technology fair are pulling the plug over worries about the viral outbreak from China. The annual Mobile World Congress will no longer be held as planned in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 24-27.

"Global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event," John Hoffman, CEO of the association that hosts the convention, said in a statement Wednesday.

The cost of canceling the annual MWC is not yet known; the motivation behind the decision was purely related to health and safety concerns over the coronavirus, now called COVID-19. Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA said Thursday they could not discuss the costs, as it was "early days yet."

"It's not about money," he told reporters in Barcelona.

The decision to scrap the event was made after dozens of tech companies and wireless carriers dropped out, including major companies like Ericsson, Nokia, Sony, Amazon, Intel and LG. The companies cited concerns for the safety of staff and visitors.

Hoffman said the GSMA had considered a scaled-down event but "all of our buyers have indicated they would not attend." He said they looked at the data Wednesday and concluded that the "vast majority of those who planned to attend were not going to be there." 

He said postponing it was discarded as it was "impossible to predict when this situation is going to conclude."

Describing it as "a very dark day," Hoffman added that the group nevertheless looked forward to hosting the event again in Barcelona in 2021.

Organizers and government officials had sought to hold out against growing pressure to cancel the annual tech extravaganza, which had been expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors from about 200 countries, including 5,000 to 6,000 from China. The show normally represents a huge source of revenue for hotels, restaurants and taxi companies. Authorities have estimated the show was to generate about $516 million and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.

Spain's vice president, Carmen Calvo, said there was "no public health reason" to call off the show. She said Spain had a good health-response system and was following all of the recommendations from the World Health Organization.

Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief, said before the cancellation that the show could have gone on. He said that while no mass gathering is ever risk-free, with the potential for food poisoning, injuries or building collapse, most events "can continue if the proper measures can be applied."

Spanish labor unions said that the show was called off due to the panic of the major technological companies. The CCOO union's regional leader, Javier Pacheco, denounced "the alarmist attitude of the technological companies that from their position of global supremacy don't care about the local impact."

But Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies, said cancellation was prudent with all the unknowns surrounding how the new virus is spread and the fact that many companies had already pulled out. These days, most big companies hold their own product launch events anyway, as Samsung did Tuesday in San Francisco. But Bajarin said the MWC was still an opportunity for many people in the mobile industry to meet in one place.

"It allowed for a lot of networking and business dealings, so in that context, it was a significant loss," he said.

The GSMA, the wireless-trade body that organizes the fair, had said it was meeting regularly with global and Spanish health experts and its partners to ensure the well-being of attendees. It had already urged participants  to avoid handshakes and planned to step up cleaning and disinfecting and make sure speakers didn't use the same microphone.

Earlier Wednesday, Nokia said it had decided to withdraw "after a full assessment of the risks related to a fast-moving situation." The company said "the health and well-being of employees was a primary focus" and that canceling its involvement was a "prudent decision."

The departures of Nokia and Ericsson had left China's Huawei, a major sponsor of the fair, as the only remaining major network gear maker still planning to attend. But even Huawei was scaling back by assigning European staff to the show instead. Its chairman had planned to hold a media briefing by video because he wouldn't get to Spain with enough time to undergo a two-week self-quarantine period. 

Organizers were caught between risking potential backlash over public-health concerns if they went ahead or facing big financial losses if they canceled, said Stephen Mears, a research analyst at Futuresource Consulting. 

Even before the cancellation, Mears said his five-person team was considering dropping out or shortening the trip as many participants they wanted to meet wouldn't be there, including those from China, which accounts for an increasing share of the global smartphone and mobile network industry.

"It's becoming less and less valuable for people like us to attend if we're not able to get meetings with the high-level executives," he said.

Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, said companies now have to figure out "the best way to salvage something from this difficult situation."

Randy Nelson, head of insights at mobile data firm Sensor Tower, said his company had planned on having a booth at the MWC. He said his firm expected to recoup the exhibiting fees since it hadn't pulled out, but had not heard from organizers yet.

While the cancellation was a disappointment, Nelson said, the work that went into planning for the show can still be useful for future events, including the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March.


Mae Anderson reported from New York. Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, and AP medical writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.