By Luis Felipe Castilleja and Joan Faus
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona recalls the cancellation of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in February 2020 as the first sign that COVID-19 was a real, immediate cause for concern - a month before most of the world locked down.
Sixteen months later, the Spanish city sees the return of the annual telecoms industry gathering -- albeit in a much pared-down version -- as cause for hope, as vaccination rates accelerate and Europe seems to be starting to leave the worst of the pandemic behind.
Holding the Congress is "absolutely a step forward", John Hoffman, CEO of MWC organizing body GSMA, told Reuters on Friday. "It's the reopening of business."
The Mobile, as it's also called, will be the first big technology conference staged in Europe since the pandemic began and will run from June 28 to July 1.
Hoffman expects the number of attendees will range between 30,000 and 40,000 - a far cry from the more than 100,000 who flocked to the last edition in 2019, which GSMA estimated gave Barcelona a $500 million boost.
This year, GSMA has introduced a series of health measures.
A recent negative COVID-19 test, face masks and a digital badge will be required to access the venue, while a contact-tracing app will track any infections.
Barcelona's deputy mayor Jaume Collboni said the city was not concerned about potential MWC-related coronavirus outbreaks as other events, though smaller, have taken place recently and infections have plummeted in Spain.
For the tourism-dependent city - hit hard by the collapse of international visitors and the fear that the MWC could move elsewhere - the return is a welcome relief.
"Simply holding (the MWC) is a success," said Collboni. "It's very important to send a double message: the city is reactivating and will continue fighting to be a leader in the technology sector".
Barcelona hotel owner Josep Maria Malagarriga was optimistic on the sector's recovery despite MWC's official agency only booking 11 hotels this year, when it would normally contract over 400.
Occupancy for Monday at his Hotel Continental Palacete is at 50% and with prices still significantly below usual rates, he said.
The industry hopes that this year's event, with an agenda split between physical, virtual, and hybrid activities, will provide a blueprint for future business gatherings.
GSMA CEO Hoffman added he was confident next February's edition - to be held during MWC's regular slot - would be bigger as "people have a need to be together".
(Reporting by Joan Faus and Luis Felipe Castilleja; editing by Clara-Laeila Laudette and Keith Weir)