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Mobile World Congress a Bright Spot for Events Industry—for Now

Last week’s show in Barcelona got a sizable crowd. Is that a harbinger of good fortune for other 2022 meetings and trade shows, or will it prove to be just a momentary blip?

For an industry that needed some good news after two full years of Covid-related cancellations and contingencies, the attendance figure of 60,000 for Mobile World Congress 2022 in Barcelona last week, versus the 20,000 it drew in July 2021, provided a morale boost and rekindled hope for a return to a close-to-normal business environment sometime this year.

Especially on the heels of CES 2022 in Las Vegas—which drew just 45,000 attendees in January due to the rapid spread of Covid’s Omicron variant around that time—confidence in the strength of in-person conventions and exhibitions in 2022 might have been fading. But with the number of Covid cases in the United States falling from 899,950 on January 13 to just 55,200 on March 2, the confidence of show managers that’s found in this recent survey from global exhibition-industry association UFI is likely to continue its upward trajectory.

However, the latest wild-card factor for international business in general, and air travel in particular, is the Russian war in Ukraine. According to destination management companies in Eastern Europe, the situation could affect the planning of business programs across the region while reducing attendance by citizens of Central and Eastern Europe at business events worldwide.

What’s more, some revenue will be forfeited by shows that choose to ban Russian organizations from participating—one example is IMEX Frankfurt, the largest show for those who work in the meeting and event industry, set for May 31-June 2.

In fact, the events industry has raised its profile on this issue and is factoring the war into its activities, alongside the Covid pandemic. For instance, the Professional Convention Management Association came out with a statement a few days after the February 24 advance of Russian troops across the Ukrainian border. In part, it reads: “Now, more than ever, the world must come together. The unprovoked and unjustified attacks on the people of Ukraine prove that we, as a society, have more work to do…Our global communities must be resolute in driving economic good to solve complex issues…PCMA is contributing to the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund for urgently needed food, water, and shelter.”

On March 3, Meeting Professionals International said it had suspended business with all companies in Russia, and “any plans to formalize a chapter in Russia will be paused…We remain concerned for the well-being of our community and our MPI members in Russia and Ukraine who were already seeking to climb out of the shadow of this pandemic and are now experiencing these unprecedented challenges.”

The Society for Incentive Travel Excellence's Poland chapter is actively assisting in relief efforts for fleeing residents of neighboring Ukraine. SITE also released a statement that reads, in part: “We believe that travel rewards [provide] extraordinary benefits to the individuals who qualify for them, the corporations who sponsor them, and the destinations in which they take place. By celebrating diversity, highlighting equity, promoting inclusion, and fostering cultural immersion and exchange, travel acts as a powerful agent of tolerance, peace, and unification. We profess that belief again today as the peace and security of our world has been attacked, and we call for an immediate end to hostilities and for support of those affected.”

And the Events Industry Council, an umbrella group of 30 professional organizations, released its own statement, which reads in part: “EIC strongly denounces the war in Ukraine and condemns the clear violation of international law. We are deeply disturbed by the humanitarian crisis unfolding, which will ultimately impact other countries and regions across Europe, and we are concerned for the safety and well-being of the people of Ukraine.”

Given the present landscape, there’s no way to accurately estimate how the convention and exhibition industry will fare throughout 2022. For event organizers, this means they must continue developing contingency plans.

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