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Why Size Should Matter to the ITU

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has a problem: Not only are large industry tradeshows becoming less relevant – because, ironically, advances in communications technology mean it's no longer the best way to get up to date on new developments – but the ITU's addressable audience for its shows has shrunk.

None of this, it should be noted, is the ITU's fault. That purchasers of telecom systems can largely keep up to snuff with industry developments from their desks these days is a positive development, while the number of people employed in the telecom sector is shrinking all the time as carriers and vendors consolidate and/or disappear.

There's another problem, as well. The communications industry categories are blurring, as telecom, Internet, and cable television collide. With an explosion of Internet-like conferences, such as Web 2.0, in addition to content conferences such as the NAB, it seems less important to have a telecom-only show. Telecom providers, after all, are becoming Internet and content providers as well.

Let's look at some numbers.

In preparing for this week's ITU Telecom World event in Hong Kong, the ITU said it expected between 35,000 and 50,000 visitors. If that many people turn up, the ITU should be happy. Whether the show floor exhibitors would feel the same way is another matter. (See Big Guns Crash ITU Party.)

Let's say the event pulls in 40,000 visitors. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, here's an indication of just how much the industry has changed since 1999, nearly the height of the Big Bouncing Bubble.

In that year, 175,883 people attended the ITU Telecom World show in Geneva. The place was heaving, everyone was in bullish mood, and at the end of every day there was a lavish party to attend. Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), for example, erected a giant marquee in the center of the Swiss capital and had blues legend Bo Diddley (a cantankerous git, it turned out) perform his set for more than 2,000 revelers.

Oh, and in the seven halls of Geneva's Palexpo exhibition center, plus spill-over tents, 1,146 companies were exhibiting their wares. It was a monster of a show, and quite exhilarating. Alcatel, I remember (correctly?), had a stand that resembled the Russian Steppes, and was so long and busy you could easily get lost on it.

Fast forward to 2003's Telecom World event, again in the charmless Swiss capital. The Bubble had burst, pretty much everyone was on a downer – notable exceptions that year, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) – and attending the event was akin to a virtual lobotomy. It was dispiriting, to say the least. You know things are bad when you notice that Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) has the show's deepest booth shag pile carpet and it makes you smile for the first time in days.

The statistics for that year? There were 911 exhibitors, again in seven halls (some with big empty spaces), and 100,840 folk turned up. Quite a creditable number, really, but down by about 75,000 bodies from 1999.

Any parties? Fugeddabahdit. Check out this article, The Party’s Over from 2003's show daily newspaper, penned by former ITU press relations man Piers Letcher. It tells quite a story.

Now it's 2006 – a gap of three years between events instead of the traditional four. There are 650 exhibitors, and if the show manages to get 40,000 people through the door, then it will be comfortably in its target range. But look at the fall in numbers in just three years: Even at the high end of the ITU's expectations, visitor numbers will be down by more than 50 percent.

And the show has a new location: Hong Kong. The ITU had been criticized for years for failing to break away from Geneva, and finally it did.

But... this Hong Kong event is sandwiched by two ITU Telecom Asia shows -- one in Busan, South Korea, in late 2004, and another planned for 2008, reportedly set for the same Korean city.

Draw your own conclusions about this, but it looks to me as if the ITU identified the Asia/Pacific region as the most likely to yield the most show dollars while the global telecom sector rediscovers its spending appetite. Remember, the decision to move the show away from Geneva and to Hong Kong was taken in 2004, when the traditional spending strongholds in Western Europe and North America were still a bit wobbly. (See ITU Picks Hong Kong for 2006 Show.)

The move looks cynical. What benefit is there in having so many major shows in one region so close together? Yes, two years is a long time in this industry, but no one region can benefit from that kind of overkill. And aren't these shows about benefiting the industry? The current Telecom World show is an unnecessary item on the industry event calendar.

But hey, there's some good news! The telecom sector has picked up a bit now, and carriers are spending money on their next-generation networks, both fixed and mobile. (See Global Capex Increasing.)

Unsurprisingly, that has whet the appetite of the world's favorite telecom organization, which has created a new show, ITU Telecom Europe, to eventuate in beautiful downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, December 3-6, 2007. Having that sort of regional show makes a whole lot more sense than a global jamboree. The exhibits and presentations, one would imagine, will be relevant to its prospective audience.

But there's more. The ITU has already decided to shift the next Telecom World event – October 5-9, 2009 – back to Geneva, where the housing is lousy and expensive, and the transport links to the Palexpo exhibition site are painfully insufficient. (Geneva, coincidentally, is also the location of the ITU's headquarters. There's no place like home, so the saying goes.)

Talk to many people in the industry and you'll find a consensus of opinion: The most relevant industry events these days are small, very focused, and are over in one or two days. ITU Telecom Europe? Sounds like a decent enough idea, though it will likely struggle to find the sort of focus people really find useful.

ITU Telecom World 2009? The ITU should do everyone a favor and cancel it.

Have you got a view on all this? Check out our new reader poll: ITU's Role.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

digits 12/5/2012 | 3:32:53 AM
re: Why Size Should Matter to the ITU The first post-Telecom World 2006 statistic to come out of the ITU is that 62,000 people flocked to Hong Kong.
If that's 62,000 people that were pure registered visitors -- excluding exhibitors, stand staff, speakers, supprt staff etc -- then all credit to the event. That's a decent haul. But let's wait and see the breakdown.
But whatever the "true" statistics, I still think the 2009 event should be scrapped.

Ray, Light Reading
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