Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/23/gsma_2009/

No writing on the wall is bad news for the GSMA

Great booths up, attendance down. And as for next year....

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Mobile, 23rd February 2009 11:55 GMT

Comment I've been trying to work out what GSMA does – apart from Mobile World Congress, that is. The list is rather impressive: it does a lot of very wonderful things.

The trouble is, all of those splendid projects seem to depend on MWC being a financial success.

I can't see much else that makes money for the GSMA. I can see a lot, though, which requires real money.

That list isn't chickenfeed, is it? It's programmes and initiatives, as the official blurb puts it. Some of that is useful, other bits are mission-critical for the communications business. Others are socially important for third world development.

All of them live on the success of Mobile World Congress.

So, what's the official word on the show? It is:

The GSMA today reported that more than 47,000* visitors from 189 countries attended the GSMA Mobile World Congress, the leading event for the mobile communications industry. The four-day conference and exhibition attracted executives from the world's largest and most influential mobile operators, software companies, equipment providers, Internet companies and media and entertainment organisations, as well as government delegations. 50 per cent of Mobile World Congress attendees hold C-level positions, including more than 2,800 CEOs.

That's one theory - but I didn't meet many people there who agreed with it.

This year, my various unofficial estimates of the size of the Barcelona cash cow - which feeds all those excellent projects inside the GSMA - all point to a financial meltdown. Specifically, where "official spokespeople" say "we were about 20 per cent down", my figures say at least 40 per cent. One source I trust told me the internal numbers he'd seen were 46 per cent down on last year.

It may be worse. For example, when I went to queue up for my badge on Sunday, I expected a queue of journalists. There wasn't one (well, there was, but only when the computers went down for five minutes) because there were (unofficial, but reliable source) only 400 journalists registering/ collecting badges that day. Last year, the figure was 800.

First, the good news: "The quality of delegates was significantly up."

That's not just a puff message from GSMA officialdom. It's from the shop floor – it's what exhibitors told me. If you were on a booth in any of the halls, you were visited by very senior people compared with last year.

But is that really good news? Possibly not; it also means that the middle rank and file of the industry didn't get travel vouchers. The show depends on these people, not just the CEOs and CTOs.

Next, "the Americans aren't here," said one delegate. "I come each year to make contact with those people the other side of the Atlantic. It's a choice - either I meet them in Barcelona, or I fly to the States 20 times in 12 months." His diary had spent the last three months emptying itself as, one by one, quite senior executives and all mid-rank workers, cancelled.

He wasn't alone; my own sponsor list for the show, which normally makes a bit of spending cash for my little analysis business, was down to two. One of those cancelled at the last moment.

We're not talking small fry, here. I count on renewing contacts like this, too; when else do I get to meet the CEO of Broadcom? Normally, he's there in the throng, doing press conferences, organizing rather cool press events, introducing senior R&D staff. This year - nobody. It wasn't the only North American firm in that situation, either.

OK, some of the big guys did come, and spent real money. Cisco, for example – it had a huge presence. So did HP. Were they in the exhibit halls? Not that I could find, no. They were "off campus" in their own hotels.

Official comment was hard to elicit. Unofficially, friends of executives in these companies were saying "Well, by simply not building out their stand, an exhibitor with ten booth staff was probably saving $200,000." Cisco, I am told, was planning to have 70 staff on its booth; it left them all behind.

Can the GSMA stop that sort of rot? It certainly intends to try. Firmly written emails went to the naughty parties telling them that this would not be permitted next year.

Heck, that would normally scare the pants off the marketing department. This year, it makes life easier. "I've got just one month," said one senior VP for a major infrastructure provider company. "At the end of that month, I have to prove to my finance director that it's worth confirming the stand for next February."

Confirming your stand is an awesome ritual, which makes the selection of a new Pontiff seem quite trivial, for some companies. You have to do it, or the prime location you have had for a decade is lost; next year you find yourself tucked away in a tent. I know companies which got taken over – smallish, not necessarily unprofitable, but unprepossessing outfits – purely because they had first pick on a big booth in Hall 1.

"A year after we bought them, we de-merged," giggled one CEO. "They went back to GSMA and asked for their booth back. 'No, it belongs to your parent company,' they were told. How we laughed!"

Not for 2010, I don't think. Already, on Tuesday, people were saying: "There's no way. We'll wait till September, and see if anybody else is booking, but even then, there will be new prime spaces going begging. Why, we may even get a better site!" What they made of Wednesday, I can't tell you from the evidence of my own eyes, but a colleague was there Wednesday and Thursday, and his description (and photos!) are summarised:

"Empty. All gone home."

Before the show, I asked Alcatel-Lucent what they were expecting to do at the show. "Nothing. We're doing an analyst day on the Sunday before the show, but very little at the show itself," they said. "We don't see it as a backhaul show any more," added my source – a very senior source, I might add.

It's not just the money GSMA rakes in from exhibitors and delegates that makes the Congress so profitable. The City of Barcelona, benefits too.

Last year (and all previous years) the fact that the show was in town was unmissable. Any building with scaffolding on it (always plentiful) was turned into a poster for one of the big handset companies. This year, I saw a neat little advert on the revolving doors of a central hotel, for Microsoft. Otherwise, pretty much nothing. I made it from the airport to the Fira without seeing more than one banner. Barcelona makes money from those - it will miss them.

On Saturday night, I got a seat at a nice restaurant at around 10pm. That was February 14, when you'd expect red roses and hearts to occupy all those seats anyway. Add the Congress, and you'd reckon it was hardly worth looking for a table unless you booked last month – normally.

Next year better be better, or we're in deep… ®