The Retreat from Barcelona…

The Retreat from Barcelona… Louis Hall reviews another hectic week at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) and looks back on how the event has changed over the past 20 years.

Returning from Barcelona after another week in the cacophonic caldron that is Mobile World Congress leaves one both exhausted and re-energised. First of all, it was refreshing to have the opportunity to reconnect with so many customers, partners and other colleagues in the industry, and it is still true that MWC is the place where you are most likely to find the people you need to meet in every sector of our industry. On the other hand, MWC has long since ceased to be a forum for debating policy decisions and genuinely changing the nature of the communications business.

Things have indeed moved on since those heady days of the early to mid 1990s when the two or three hundred delegates to the GSM MoU group (the forerunner of MWC) would meet to genuinely shape the future of mobile communications, supported by a tiny coterie of vendor sponsors who were fortunate enough to be part of it. In those days there were no ‘stars’ and there was not much in the way of slick, stage managed presentations, but there was plenty of debate and often violent disagreement.

Then there was the romance of Cannes, the new home of the fledgling MWC after a brief sojourn in Madrid; the crazy long-distance commutes from Juan-Les-Pins and St Tropez, the permanently grid-locked traffic, the cramped basement exhibition space later over-flowing into tents, the sublime Hotel Martinez and the appalling Irish bar; but in that cosy Cote d’Azur uber-village everything was at least in close proximity and you were never likely to be much more than 100 metres away from the people you needed to meet, either over a coffee across the street from the Palais or a stroll along the Croisette. This was glitz and glamour, yacht parties, stunning villas – almost the Film Festival.

So, where are we now? One cannot question the GSMA’s phenomenal success in expanding MWC since the move to Barcelona. The figures are staggering… 80,000 delegates (or was it 85,000?), 1.7km from one end of the Fira to the other, and incredible volumes of meetings and ‘catch-ups’ almost 24/7. There is also no doubt that MWC is now a world event, attracting industry celebrities and oceans of media coverage.  However, most of us can pick up the latest from Mark Zuckerberg on our smartphones wherever we are in the world.  Furthermore, most of us probably only need to interact with a few hundred delegates, and the challenges now posed by the sheer scale of the show - the distances between the out of town conference centre, hotels and entertainment venues, and the need to book a long way in advance for pretty much everything - are becoming more of an issue.

Indeed, the challenge for the GSMA, in a world of ‘always on’, virtual, mobile communication – of which it was one of the forefathers – is to sustain its relevance in order to remain something more than a place to go to catch up with customers, partners and friends in an albeit increasingly challenging environment.

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