With Mobile World Congress officially cancelled as of February 12th, a new event, Tech Spirit Barcelona, has risen in its wake. Here's how Barcelona’s tech community mobilized to deliver the event in a matter of days.
The beginning of 2020 has proven to be rocky for the events industry following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in late 2019. High-profile events are being cancelled as many in the industry are erring on the side of caution.
The first major event casualty outside of Asia was Mobile World Congress (MWC), one of the biggest tech events of the year. Announcing its cancellation only 12 days before it was supposed to take place, MWC heralded the broader global impact of the virus on events.
However, in an optimistic turn of events, Barcelona’s tech community took it upon themselves to fill the space in the calendar left by MWC and the cancelled satellite event, 4YFN. One day later, their event was poised to take its place: Tech Spirit Barcelona.
Over 3,000 participants registered on the first day, including big names like Uber and Glovo, and about 60 speakers have confirmed their attendance.
So, what exactly is this event that popped up seemingly overnight? And what does this say about the real risk of these events?
Picking Up the Pieces of MWC
The MWC cancellation announcement left both the tech industry and the city of Barcelona reeling. The conference was expecting over 100,000 attendees and 28,000 exhibitors, and its cancellation cost the economy of Barcelona an estimated $500 million.
MWC’s organizers, the GSM Association, felt they had no choice but to officially cancel as key exhibitors like LG, Sony, Amazon and Facebook pulled out of the conference one after another, but that left many tech companies who were depending on the event in the lurch.
Tech Spirit Barcelona was born to service these needs, though on an understandably smaller scale. While many industry professionals have cancelled their plans to travel to Barcelona, many others have come to network, learn, and participate in the activities.
Excited to be in #Barcelona a dynamic city, amazing people, innovative entrepreneurs and great & disruptive new initiatives. Even though the #MWC2020 got canceled, the amazing resilience, “yes we can” attitude perseveres check out alternative events on #BarcelonaTechSpirit. pic.twitter.com/HQ3dXvJh4J
— Natalia (@olsonurtecho) February 18, 2020
Creating Tech Spirit Barcelona
In the wake of the MWC cancellation announcement, Barcelona's entrepreneurial tech community came together to produce a stand-in event for those who are still willing to travel to the Catalonian capital.
The event was organized by Barcelona Tech City, a private non-profit organization that serves Barcelona-based members of the tech industry, working together with Barcelona City Hall, the Catalonian government, and Mobile World Capital Barcelona — the foundation that normally hosts MWC in Barcelona.
Organizing any event is a feat — often one that takes months of work. While only a fraction of the size of MWC, tech entrepreneurs in Barcelona were able to find venues, get speaker commitments, and even launch a website and registration page at the last minute. These partnerships combined with overwhelming community support and solidarity are what made the event possible.
At Barcelona Tech City we are absolutely overwhelmed by the great waves of solidarity that #BarcelonaTechSpirit has received.There have been hundreds of offers of spaces, activities and volunteers and we're working hard to keep up with it all and to make sure that the coming days
— Barcelona Tech City (@bcntechcity) February 15, 2020
Tech Spirit Barcelona was planned and executed in mere days and comprises over 50 separate events, including networking events, panels, and sessions with distinguished speakers.
The Real Risk of Events Amid Contamination Fears
We are already 4000 spirits joining just the central event in Llotja de Mar-Pier01 Plus thousands joining the rest of events.#TechSpiritBarcelona @bcntechcity @MiquelMarti11 @carlosblanco @ctrenchs @maralarco @timmpsmith Thank you all.
— Miguel Vicente (@MiguelVicente_) February 21, 2020
The interest in Tech Spirit Barcelona and its relatively impressive turnout raise the question, is the events industry overreacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus threat, or are these organizers being cavalier about the crisis?
It's impossible to say with certainty what the true risk of hosting large events is at this point — and Tech Spirit Barcelona definitely isn’t anywhere near as big as MWC would have been. But it is roughly the size of the similarly cancelled Facebook marketing summit, and it's easy to understand the concern.
While there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in mainland Spain, it's important to note that the purported risk has less to do with existing local cases than with the risk created by the event itself through travel and congregation. MWC was expecting 5,000 to 6,000 people traveling from China, where the vast majority of the over 2,000 casualties of the virus and over 75,000 infected (as of February 18th) are from.
This number continues to rise globally, including new outbreaks in Iran that are challenging local authorities' ability to contain the virus and South Korea, where the number of confirmed cases has doubled overnight to 433.
Moreover, because many people exhibit only mild symptoms or none at all and the incubation period is up to two weeks, it is impossible to accurately gauge the scope of the impact in real-time. This makes it difficult to identify and curb at huge international gatherings of thousands of attendees, to get to which most are passing through a minimum of two international airports.
In a recent press conference, Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, recommended "reasonable, well managed meetings and gatherings in which the risks are managed appropriately."
"We're not going to be in a position to say, on the slightest possibility that there may [be] an infection associated with nCoV, that we're going to cancel every event ... I think we need to take a risk management approach, accept there's no 'zero risk,' and do our best to ensure the safety of people attending all gatherings around the world."
Similarly, the ICCA has indicated that only a relatively minor 4.1% of its events in the Asia Pacific region are currently affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus, and that it's working to help planners accurately assess the risks to their events.
Risk and Liability
Each organization that has pulled out of an event cited concern for the health and wellbeing of staff, attendees and other stakeholders. The risk of liability is undoubtedly weighing heavily in event organizers' decisions.
While the consequences of unnecessarily cancelling could be costly for everyone involved, planners can take certain measures to manage their liability, like building a strong force majeure clause into their contracts with vendors and suppliers.
To mitigate risk and liability for those events that do go on, organizers should, at the very least, strongly consider implementing health and safety measures like the GSMA proposed prior to MWC’s cancellation, and pay close attention to the recommendations of governing bodies like the WHO.
MWC has been held in Barcelona since 2006, and its cancellation was a blow to the tech world and to the events industry, which has seen numerous cancellations in recent weeks.
Time will tell whether the COVID-19 coronavirus warranted these disruptions. In the meantime, Tech Spirit Barcelona has demonstrated an impressive mobilization of the tech community and has shown that not all event organizers are letting coronavirus fears get in the way of their plans to create in-person experiences and opportunities for their industry.