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Just as computers and the Internet failed to create the paperless office, cheap and ubiquitous video-calling has made nary a dent in business travel. Dealmakers, teammates, customers, and, most importantly, salespeople all intuitively and measurably know the value of face-to-face communication.
This is why big business conferences, love them or hate them, remain so important—an assertion that will be tested with the global coronavirus pandemic. I love and loathe events, especially the tech kind. Davos is platform for preening and blowharding, but the opportunity for multinational companies to see scores of customers in one go is undeniable. CES in Las Vegas is even worse, a cesspool of tech humanity which nevertheless is a must-attend for everyone who is anyone in tech precisely because the gang is all there. I love TED, a few private events I can’t name, and, of course, Fortune Brainstorm Tech, which happens this year July 13-15 in Aspen, Colo.
It doesn’t matter, of course, what I like or don’t like. These meetings are crucial to business, which is why the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, to have happened later this month in Barcelona, is so important. It’s a 33-year-old cell-phone industry institution, and more than 100,000 people show up. (I went in 2004, when it was called 3GSM—compare the “3” to today’s 5G—and held in Cannes, France. My mission was strictly to secure an interview with the CEO of Motorola. It worked. We sent Aaron the past few years.)
The cancellation of MWC will have a devastating economic impact. It will hurt Barcelona, the companies that sunk capital into their exhibitions, and the association that puts on the show. The group is rightly concerned with the health and safety of its attendees, and feels for the victims of the virus. But its hand was forced by the cancellation of its exhibiting companies.
The question now is what happens next. Will sales of 5G phones falter because the companies that make them can’t sell them to partners at one giant conference? Or will they get innovative and find other ways? I suspect the latter—and also a brutal shakeout in these events, indispensable for global commerce as they are.
Happy Valentine’s Day. (I love your feedback, bad and good.) Data Sheet returns Tuesday, after the U.S. celebrates a day that used to honor only George Washington but now pays homage to all the country’s presidents, including the incumbent.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.