Industry Voices—Jarich: Mobile World Congress Americas: What would 'success' look like?

San Francisco (Pixabay)
Mobile World Congress Americas will debut in San Francisco next month.
Peter Jarich

Mobile World Congress Americas is firmly on the horizon—just a few weeks away. Between the time and energy spent by everyone showing up for the show and the pride of the organizers, there’s a lot riding on the success of this “inaugural” event. But that begs an obvious question. When the dust has settled, how will we evaluate whether or not the event was actually a “success?”

Before trying to answer that question, a brief history lesson—at least through my lens—might be useful. After attempting to run two major conferences every year, CTIA eventually put its money on one annual show in the fall of 2014. “Super Mobility Week” was an amalgam of CTIA’s own content, colocated partner events, and exhibitors across the spectrum of the mobile ecosystem—from network vendors and carriers, to site infrastructure suppliers and handset accessory vendors. Despite an attempt to cover so many aspects of mobility (remember, it was SUPER) and the proximity to the lucrative North American market, Super Mobility Week increasingly became an event where the ROI on attending or exhibiting was questionable for many people. Meanwhile, the GSMA’s juggernaut Mobile World Congress (MWC) event continued to grow bigger and bigger. And with an interest at global dominance resulting in 2015’s MWC Shanghai, the development of a North American counterpart only seemed natural, bringing us up to this year’s MWC Americas, rolling into San Francisco from Sept. 12-14.

As with the other MWC events, the GSMA has given MWC Americas a cool sub-brand (“The Tech Element”) and outlined the major themes as play: Consumer IoT, Content & Media, Policy, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Networks and Sustainable Development . That’s a lot to address. But even if the focus was much narrower, the fact that we’re looking at the first edition of MWC Americas means that, when the dust settles, everyone will want to speculate on whether or not the event was a success.  Was it worth attending? Was it worth exhibiting at? Did it treat the right topics and advance an understanding of the industry? They’re all questions I’ll be attempting to answer in a webinar with my team on Sept. 19 (shameless plug—click here). They are also questions that can’t be answered without some expectation of what success would look like.

While the definition of success will be different for everyone (for some, the move from Las Vegas to San Francisco is an automatic win), here is some of what we’ll be looking for.

  • The Basics – Who Showed Up. Right or wrong, most events are evaluated on how many people attended, how many companies exhibited and who showed up to keynote. For all the claims of “there were fewer meetings, but the meetings we had were more meaningful,” a smaller show is usually deemed a failing show.
  • MWC Americas vs. MWC North America. Implicit in the naming of the event is a purview that reaches beyond the U.S. or even North America. It’s positioned as an event for North America, South America and everything in between. It needs to execute on that positioning. Kicking off with a Keynote that includes the head of the CTIA, Sprint’s Marcelo Claure, and America Movil’s Carlos Slim is a good sign. Content focused on Latin American innovation and investment is encouraging. A keynote on policy that has no regulators from outside the U.S. is less encouraging. Ideally, holistic Americas content will be part and parcel of most sessions, integrated into discussions and not just bolted on.
  • The Tech Element. So far this year, Mobile World Congress has brought us The Next Element (Barcelona) and The Human Element (Shanghai).  In each case, the concept felt a little fuzzy or otherwise nebulous. The “Tech Element,” on the other hand, is anything but. It’s a clear reference to Bay Area innovation and the suggestion that whereas Silicon Valley / OTT players felt like important outsiders at earlier editions of Mobile World Congress, they’ll be a more important (integral) component of MWC Americas.  If the show can pull that off, it will be a win.
  • Boiling the Sea (not the Ocean). As much as vendors and carriers might complain about the number of events they are asked to support, a subset always seems to get attention (a.k.a., marketing dollars).  Think narrowly-focused, topic specific events. It’s not hard to understand why; while they might be more modest in size, a tightly focused agenda promises more meaningful conversations, thought leadership opportunities, sales leads, etc. By calling out the major themes it hopes to address, the GSMA acknowledges that a show trying to be everything to everyone is a losing proposition for MWC Americas. Whether it can establish MWC Americas as a marquee, must-attend event across all of those themes (and be suitably narrow within them) remains to be seen. It won’t be easy. 
  • Keep ‘Em Separated. We all get the value of grouping similar vendors together on a show floor.  Well, we think we do. Yes, on the one hand, it’s about making it simpler to investigate a certain market segment and save on walk-times. It’s also about signaling that you’re in the right place—that you’re at an event that’s relevant to you. Think about the software marketing exec who gets overwhelmed by the sprawling tower technology exhibits right next to their booth or the networks vendor exec who has to wade through a sea of accessory vendors to get their booth.  Is there an issue of snobbery here? You bet. Is it a real issue nonetheless (something most of us have had multiple conversations around)? Yep.
  • Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. “Did you learn anything new?” I can’t count how many times I’ve either asked or been asked that question in reference to a trade show. More often than not, the answer is “no.” To be fair, not every conference or trade show is meant to be educational. There’s just as much value in networking, seeing customers, and getting business done.  Regardless, new insights or opportunities to learn about the market are an important part of the story. They might come from panels, or sessions, or product launches, but they help to engage and attract the people you want to meet with and lend PR support which keeps them coming back. MWC Americas isn’t along in needing to do this well. Coming nearly six months after Barcelona, however, it has an opportunity to serve as a market update for the back-half of the year.

Again, everyone’s priorities are different. One hundred people could show up to MWC Americas, all rehashing the same U.S.-centric IoT and 5G details and it might be a major success for someone. But if the goal is to grow the event into something bigger or more valuable than Super Mobility Week accomplished, MWC Americas needs to engage people around new insights while tackling the tricky balance of being broad as well as focused. 

On that note, I’d like to end with one other consideration for the show’s future success: location. While San Francisco is an expensive town for a major event, it plays well to the theme of innovation. Moving to Los Angeles in 2018, then, should play well to a focus on content. And for 2019 and beyond? Las Vegas hosts so many events because it’s set itself up to do so—with plentiful, low-cost housing options and no shortage of ways to “entertain” customers. It’s also easy to get to…for most people. But if MWC Americas is truly about more than the U.S., could we see a long-term engagement somewhere else? Somewhere easier for people from some countries (like China) to get to? I doubt it, but wouldn’t mind visiting Vancouver or Buenos Aires when the time comes.

Peter Jarich is the Chief Analyst (Global Telecom and IT) for GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.