Mobile World Congress 2021
Business 28/06/2021

John Hoffman, CEO, GSMA: "In difficult times you know who your friends are and in Barcelona we have had support"

4 min

Barcelona"It's a very dark day, very disappointing. But we know the sun will shine". Almost a year and a half ago, John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA, lived one of the most complicated moments of his professional career. Visibly moved, he announced the cancellation of the Mobile World Congress due to the growing threat of the pandemic. With a much more animated look on his face, he returns to Barcelona to inaugurate a half-hearted edition of the event on Monday.

Is it the day? Is the sun shining again?

— The sun is shining. We aren't done with covid, but we're getting closer and closer to being able to live with covid. That day was very dark. There have been many difficult days since then. The world has been affected by covid more than we could have imagined when I made that speech. Many lives have been lost, the pain and suffering around the world has been immense. But the sun is beginning to shine. And one of the things that is important to us is to bring back the MWC. We were one of the first to close and now we will be one of the first to reopen.

It's true that you are one of the first to reopen, but it's also true that it's not going to be the best edition.

— No. The incidence of covid is still at different levels around the world. That means that not everyone can travel with the same freedom or ease as two years ago. But that's okay, because it's a hybrid event, so we'll welcome those who come in person and we'll pass it on to the rest of the world. It was very important for us to have the event now, because if we had delayed it by a day or a week or a few months, it would have been better, but then it would have started to impact our calendar.

How many attendees can you confirm for this week in Barcelona?

— We're still projecting between 25,000 and 35,000 people, somewhere in that range. We're not sure yet. We'd like to have more, but there are enough to start with.

Will the congress attendees come mostly from Spain and Europe?

— No, and in fact I'll give you a statistic that we haven't published yet: so far we have registered attendees from over 145 countries and territories. Normally we receive from between 198 and 200 countries and territories.

With all the no-shows and fewer product introductions, what is the point of this MWC?

— The point it makes is because of the prevalence and dominance of our industry and our ecosystem during covid. What would your life, your business, have been like without a mobile device? Impossible. So what we want to do is to celebrate that and keep moving forward. Celebrate that mobiles have helped all of us, here in Spain and around the world, to deal with covid.

Biden said in Brussels that China's ambitions are a challenge to the international order . How does this affect you?

— It strengthens Barcelona. We hold an event in Shanghai and not all Americans can go. We do another one in Los Angeles and not all the Chinese come. In Barcelona, Americans and Chinese come because it is a neutral place.

How do you see the implementation of 5G?

— It will represent a change like the Industrial Revolution. Today we use mobile phones mainly by voice, and 5G will connect everything. It will not be a work tool that we carry around with us, like a pencil, but the core of the business.

What was the impact of the cancellation for the GSMA in terms of headcount and revenue?

— We are an international non-governmental organisation, we don't have many forms of financial support. Events are an important pillar. When covid came in, we made the decision based on health and didn't consider how it would impact us financially. We have been reduced to half of what we were before the pandemic.

Can you give us any figures?

— Hundreds. We are not a large organisation and we don't publish our financial information. But there are hundreds of people affected around the world, some here in Spain.

Were you at the limit of survival with the cancellation?

— For a while it was up in the air. We didn't know how long covid would affect us. We made contingency plans, also to see if we could keep going. Fortunately, we were able to hold on and the future looks very good.

How do you imagine the congress in 2022?

— I think it will be more like 2019. Now, will the world have recovered? If you could tell me what international travel will be like next February, I could give you more details. We think the recovery will be very strong; we've seen good indicators, but it's hard to predict the future.

Do you still plan to stay in Barcelona after 2024?

— That's a question everyone wants me to answer. I can't make the decision, I help with the recommendation. What I can say is that in difficult times you know who your friends are. And our friends in Barcelona have been very supportive. We have had a mutually beneficial relationship. When we have been in Barcelona we have contributed a lot. At the end of the day we are a fair, but we have tried to be more and leave a legacy. What does the future hold for us? Well, if you have one thing that works, why change it? But it's not something we're looking at now, we'll deal with that later.

For me, that's a yes.

— [Laughs]. It's not a yes, but it's not a no either.

The MWC has the power to bring together under one roof the king of Spain and the president of the Generalitat. Not everyone can say the same.

— If we can be part of this, bringing together people who don't have exactly the same views to stick together for a common goal and a common good, we're happy.

With the pandemic, will face-to-face conferences still have value?

— You could have interviewed me from the United States, but you didn't. Humans have an interactive need. Some things can be done remotely; others are simply better when we sit down together and share a coffee. The world of congresses will be different, there's no doubt about it. I think bringing people together face to face still has value now. Will it exist in 40 or 50 years? I don't know. But just as you wanted to sit down with me, our ecosystem wants to meet in Barcelona.