As organisers were considering whether to cancel this year's Mobile World Congress, workers were hanging up the 'welcome' sign at the Barcelona venue

Barcelona (AFP) - Organisers of the World Mobile Congress were holding urgent talks Wednesday over the fate of the world’s top mobile trade fair following an exodus of industry heavyweights over coronavirus fears, a source close to the meeting said.

“We’re leaning towards a cancellation. It should be announced later in the day,” the source told AFP.

The GSMA, the mobile trade association which organises the annual show, had originally been due to convene a meeting of its members on Friday to discuss whether or not to cancel the event, which this year runs from February 24-27.

But the date was brought forward as an increasing number of industry heavyweights pulled out.

Just hours before the meeting, the latest big names to drop out were Vodafone, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom, Britain’s BT and Rakuten of Japan, following in the footsteps of Intel, Facebook, Cisco and China’s Vivo.

Organisers refused to comment on the emergency talks, issuing a statement saying the spread of the virus was “a fast-changing situation which GSMA is monitoring closely” and that it was holding regular meetings with partners and global health experts to assess the situation.

“We have already implemented additional health measures ahead of MWC 2020 and will continue to seek expert medical advice on a frequent basis.”

According to a source close to the event, organisers would prefer to cancel but are wary of being left with a cancellation bill of about 100 million euros ($110 million). They face resistance from authorities about declaring a health emergency in Spain which would allow insurance to cover the costs.

The annual Barcelona-based congress normally draws more than 100,000 people, including between 5,000 and 6,000 participants from China, organisers say.

But this year, participation has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak which has claimed more than 1,100 lives with another 44,600 infected.

- ‘Cancelling would be traumatic’ -

Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Nokia are the latest major tech companies to announce they will skip the Mobile World Congress

Should MWC2020 be cancelled, the decision would be a major blow for Barcelona, with the massive trade show expected to bring in some 492 million euros ($536 million), organisers say.

“Cancelling Mobile World Congress would be traumatic for the city. It’s the high point of the year,” said Ignacio Arias, manager of the AC Som Marriott hotel which lies very close to the venue where the conference has been held since 2006.

“During the four days of the congress, the hotel is fully occupied with the highest rates of the year. There’s no other week like it,” he said, with his words echoed by fellow hoteliers.

“We were supposed to host the team assembling Sony’s stand but they haven’t turned up. Ericsson has cancelled 30 rooms, and Intel and LG have cancelled their meeting rooms,” said the manager of another nearly hotel who did not want to give her name.

“It feels like we’ve been working for months for nothing. This year has been pretty sluggish so far and this is just going to finish us off.”

And ride-sharing firms were also on edge.

“This period accounts for 20 percent of our yearly income,” said Jose Maria Goni who runs Unauto, a fleet of vehicles for hire with drivers.

“Some firms have cancelled everything, others have reduced their demands because they’ll have fewer staff,” he told AFP, saying that by Wednesday a third of all reservations had been cancelled.

- Trickle to a deluge -

The cancellations began on February 4 when South Korea’s LG Electronics, which occupies one of the largest spaces at the show, said it was pulling out to “remove the risk of exposing hundreds of LG employees to international travel.. as the virus continues to spread across borders”.

At that point, just under 500 people had died after contracting the virus.

China’s top smartphone manufacturer Huawei as well as its smaller rival ZTE, said their plans were unchanged, but pledged executives and staff would undergo a self-imposed two-week quarantine period, while ZTE said its stand and equipment would be disinfected daily.

The organisers also sought to reassure exhibitors, saying they would step up security measures, impose restrictions on visitors from China and have staff on hand to take visitors’ temperatures.

But it wasn’t enough, and the trickle of withdrawals quickly turned into a deluge with dozens of companies pulling out of the show.

So far, Spain has only registered two confirmed cases of infection.

Although almost all of the deaths and infections have been in mainland China, the virus has been detected in 30 countries.

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