Samsung pares back MWC presence on coronavirus concerns

The smartphone giant won't be sending as many executives to the world's largest mobile conference as in years past, but as of Friday, it still plans to attend.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
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Samsung has long had a huge presence at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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Samsung is the latest company to pare back its presence at MWC , dealing a blow to the world's biggest mobile conference.

According to people familiar with Samsung's plans, the South Korean electronics giant has been considering its options when it comes to the trade show, which takes place in Barcelona, Spain, the last week of February. So far, many of the company's US and Korean headquarters employees plan to cancel their trips to Europe, the people said. 

Over the past week at least three companies have pulled out of MWC 2020, and numerous others have said they'd alter their plans over concerns about the deadly virus. That will include taking measures like quarantining Chinese executives for the two weeks leading up to the conference.

As of Friday, Samsung still planned to have a booth and presence at the show, the people said, but we could see a halt to the important dealmaking between executives that often takes place behind the scenes at an event that attracts 100,000 people. 

Watch this: LG backs out of MWC 2020, Microsoft makes some changes

The rapidly changing conditions surrounding the coronavirus could cause Samsung's plans to change again, the people said.

Samsung didn't comment about its MWC plans. 

Samsung isn't the only company reconsidering its presence at MWC, but it's the biggest. The South Korean company sells more smartphones than any other vendor on the planet. It used to launch its newest gadgets in Barcelona, but in recent years it's favored hosting an Unpacked event in the US ahead of MWC. It'll show off its newest phones, like the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Z Flip, on Tuesday in San Francisco.

A pneumonia-like disease, the new coronavirus was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. The strain, dubbed 2019-nCoV, has now infected about 35,000 Chinese citizens and claimed more than 720 lives. It's also spread beyond China's borders to places like the US, Japan and Australia. Authorities around the world have begun limiting travel and enforcing quarantines to guard against the spread. 

The spread of the disease has had ripple effects across the globes and illustrates how connected the tech world has become. Chinese companies are some of the world's biggest makers of mobile devices, and they're also key parts of the supply chain, manufacturing components and assembling devices for customers across the globe. The worries about the coronavirus have resulted in shuttered factories and the quarantine of the 11 million people living in Wuhan. Numerous technology companies have closed their stores and offices in the country and have implemented travel restrictions. 

MWC brings together companies from across the globe, with many using the trade show as the place to introduce their newest  smartphones . This year is expected to feature new 5G phones from nearly every major Android vendor, as well as news about the networks running the new super-fast connectivity. But the coronavirus threatens to curtail the trade show.

Already, LG has said it's no longer attending MWC, Ericsson also said it'll sit this one out, and Nvidia said it'll withdraw from the show.  ZTE  has canceled its press conference. Huawei and Oppo plan to quarantine their executives for 14 days before MWC starts, while Oppo will check the temperature of every person attending its events. Other companies are also taking precautions to prevent risks to employees and attendees, like implementing strict sanitary and health procedures.

Other major players in the mobile industry are reconsidering their attendance, according to people familiar with the internal discussions companies are having. Some may pull out all together, the people said, while others are planning to scale down their presence. For some companies, that could mean canceling travel by executives from places like Asia or the US and instead relying on European employees to staff their booths and events. Many plan to let their executives decide if they want to attend the conference.

If Samsung does eventually decide to withdraw from MWC, that's likely to have ripple effects across the industry. 

"I think the number of people attending will drop dramatically this year," IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo said.

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CNET's Katie Collins contributed to this report.