Skift Take

There’s still a huge risk hosting larger scale exhibitions, but the organizer of Mobile World Congress is hoping to offset some of that by outsourcing travel management.

Smartphone trade show Mobile World Congress was one of the first major events to be canceled in 2020, driving home the severity of the pandemic.

Host city Barcelona, in Spain, will have felt the blow of losing 100,000 visitors, with the decision to pull it coming just 12 days before it was due to start on February 24. It typically boosts the economy to the tune of $513 million and generates nearly 14,000 temporary jobs.

But it’s back this year, and due to take place from June 28 to July 1. Organizer Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) is taking every caution so it runs smoothly, and in what could be an industry first, that includes appointing a corporate travel agency to steady the nerves of thousands of attendees.

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The UK’s Gray Dawes Group will offer travel-related advice and support covering Covid-19 considerations and PCR testing; travel documentation and visa forms; quarantine and border restrictions and travel itineraries.

The Colchester-based company will be hoping for plenty of bookings too, although GSMA also lists bnetwork as its official accommodation partner.

Scaling Down

In February, GSMA CEO John Hoffman said he expected between 40,000 and 50,000 delegates, but Gray Dawes Group anticipates 30,000. Either way, it’s likely going to surpass Madrid’s HIP Expo, held March 22-24, which saw 9,000 in-person registrants.

Gray Dawes Group originally planned to just support the 700 exhibitors with their travel. But then it quizzed the organizers on the delegates.

The annual Mobile World Congress is one of Barcelona's biggest events. Picture: MWC

The annual Mobile World Congress is one of Barcelona’s biggest events. Picture: MWC

“The same process applies,” said Laura Busby, its head of sales. “How do you build confidence, how can they get specific advice on the country they’re traveling from, and help with the booking if needed. GSMA needed that expertise in specific travel advice.”

This kind of partnership is a first for Gray Dawes Group, but it’s not for the fainthearted.

There’s uncertainty getting into bed with mega-events, which could be shutdown before they even start due to rising coronavirus cases. Gray Dawes Group also had to build a bespoke team, ring-fencing its travel advisors and training them on all the event details.

“It’s taken me a long time to unpick how we build this, building a bespoke solution to an intricate problem and training the staff,” Busby said. “It’s a good model if you’re willing to put that time in, and understand you have to do things differently. This is not a cookie-cutter solution.”

There’s commercial risk too — a lot of time was spent fielding calls from anxious delegates, and with seven weeks to go there’s no estimate of how busy things will get. Currently, there’s an average of two to five phone calls per person before a booking is made. Often, callers want advice so they’re ready to book at the last minute.

The agency did consider setting up an online help desk, but with people from so many countries, it opted for a simpler solution: an email address and a phone number.

The back to basics approach speaks volumes about the value travel advisors can offer. While the GSMA has its own corporate travel agency — a more technology-oriented competitor — in the end it opted for Gray Dawes Group, and its consultants, as it felt it could trust the company, according to Busby.

“Confidence has been affected, and we really get that,” she added. “This is new for events, and for what we’re doing. We’re there to support travel guidance.”

CWT Meetings & Events said it was starting to see a “significant uptick” in activity for small in-person events and large-scale hybrid, global events, and is focusing on traveler safety information.

“While we don’t typically support consumer events like Mobile World Congress, we can provide all of our client’s event delegates with an end-to-end service that spans wider than pure meetings and events logistics, sourcing, booking, management and coordination — specifically, traveller safety information and guidance through our ‘return to travel’ resources and ‘travel essentials’ platform,” said Chris Bowen, senior vice president and managing director.

This means its providing up-to-date information on restrictions, procedures and travel requirements based on specific travel itinerary details such as trip origin, destination, travel dates and traveler nationality.

Last year, it connected 74,000 people through virtual and hybrid events globally.

A Superspreader Event in the Making?

Many people will question the Spanish government’s decision to go ahead with Mobile World Congress, considering rising case numbers in Europe. And this is a truly global event after all.

Spain is bizarrely lifting standard travel restrictions for the event — but the logic here doesn’t make sense considering delegates will still need to fly back home and likely face strict entry requirements.

“Whilst there is a current denial of entry to Spain for any national from a country outside the EU, exceptions apply to specific groups of people, including ‘highly qualified workers’. The decision from the Spanish government now includes MWC21 Barcelona registrants in this category,” it said in a statement.

There’s also a Committed Community event safety plan, and delegates will need to show a negative Covid-19 test result, something the airlines will be requiring anyway. “Exceptional times call for exceptional safety measures. That’s why we’ve been working with our partners to create a multi-layered safety approach approved by Catalan Health authorities,” the company said.

It could still end up backfiring for Gray Dawes Group, but Busby said the agency is being clear that it’s following each country’s government guidelines to the letter.

Spain has wasted no time in revving up its event sector alongside its tourism industry, so moving forward with such a high-profile perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of shock. “The world at some point has got to get going again. We’ve been excited about the possibility that this could be a real success story,” Busby said.

If it succeeds, it stands to position corporate travel agencies in a very favorable light, and partnering with mega-events this year and beyond could turn out to be a lucrative, if unexpected, development.

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Tags: barcelona, business events, coronavirus, corporate travel, corporate travel management, cwt, events and conferences, Mobile World Congress, spain

Photo credit: Mobile World Congress is scheduled to take places June 28 to July 1, 2021, after cancelling it at the last minute last year. Mobile World Congress

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