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Market Analysis

Barcelona: Europe's Tech Conference Capital?

It’s the middle of October in Barcelona but, even for this sunny city, unseasonably hot. Hence the look on the hotel receptionist’s face, as I arrive, perspiring attractively thanks to my clueless choice of a sweater and jacket better suited to England’s Cheltenham racecourse than 26 degrees Celsius in a cab with no air-con. He looks in control, smart and unimpressed; I’m looking distrait, potentially malodorous and apologetic.

He’s here because he’s good at his job (probably) and I’m here because I’m covering three tech conferences in the Catalan capital. That alone is proof that the technology conference lives on, many years after it was supposed to be dying or dead. European conferences hosted by the big firms pull in several thousand punters and in the US they can attract a five-figure number. It’s big business for the cities involved that gain an influx of smart people on expense accounts who want to butter up clients and prospects.

Such is the scale of the tech business and symptomatic of the way that mergers and acquisitions have reduced the field, only a few cities can comfortably cope with the arrival of big vendors. You need big venues, big hotels, good transport and to be a place people want to visit.

In the US that has effectively taken the competition for the biggest shows down to a couple of cities: Las Vegas and San Francisco. And in Europe, Barcelona is becoming the big magnet for all shows tech, most notably the epic-scale Mobile World Congress annual expo that pulls in 70,000-plus people and was reckoned to generate a 300 million euro bonanza in its first year and a total jackpot of 3.5 billion euros over seven years.

Barcelona was selected in 2011 when the event outgrew its former host of Cannes, France, beating bids from Milan, Paris and Munich with John Hoffman, CEO of event sponsor GSMA, saying:

"All of the cities who competed for this title presented extremely innovative and compelling bids, but in the end, Barcelona truly demonstrated that it deserves the title of the Mobile World Capital, with its combination of outstanding exhibition and conference facilities, its transportation and hospitality infrastructure, its commitment to expanding the reach of mobility throughout Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, and the strong support of the public and private sectors.”

But Barcelona is also home to major confabs for Microsoft and other technology-related companies such as IT industry analyst giant, Gartner which will run its Symposium ITxpo here in November for about 4,000 attendees. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but a straw poll of European journalists, analysts and IT workers confirms the notion that Barcelona has become pre-eminent in recent years. And it’s not just tech: Barcelona is reckoned to be the world’s third most popular city for conventions despite the fact that it is relatively small with a population of 1.6 million.

“The most important thing is the audience,” says Howard Ting, VP of marketing at Silicon Valley datacentre storage startup, Nutanix as we sit at VMware’s VMworld 8,000-strong conference, trying to ignore the intense heat beaming in through the window panes at the Fira Gran Via, one of several exhibition centres in the city. “We ask: ‘are they our target buyers?’ and this community is our best fit.”

Isn’t it odd though, I ask, that in a world of virtualisation, abstraction layers, videoconferencing and cellular and satellite communications, that thousands of people from all over the world will congregate in a given spot at a given time?

Ting shakes his head and sighs.

“I’ve gone back and forth on this and there was a time when I believed in the virtual conference but [face-to-face] made a huge comeback. You can’t replace the social human aspect.”

He likes Barcelona as a city venue.

“There’s nothing like having a drink in a nice bar. You’ve got great food, every night there’s social activity, you have diversity of restaurants, the infrastructure is good. It’s cheaper than London, the weather is good and it’s very easy to get here.”

There’s also a conservative factor: once companies have used a city once they’ll tend to stick with it. All that said, Ting probably won’t be using Barcelona for a Nutanix event because he fears it can be “too much fun” as late nights run into early mornings leading to sparse attendance for some events.

Without giving the game away, Ting is looking at “phenomenal, beautiful cities” that aren’t quite as lively as Barcelona, a place where a major drugs scene and sex industry are as obvious features as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the Ramblas and the stupendous market of La Boqueria.

Mark Cattini, vice president, international at Autotask, which provides tools for IT service providers, agrees that Barcelona is a strong choice.

“It’s got everything you’d want,” he says, speaking from his company’s user event in the US-style business resort hotel, the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I, set in beautiful gardens. “You can do it all under one roof and it’s only 10 minutes from the airport.”

However, Cattini thinks there may be a reaction against Barcelona’s popularity as companies seek something novel. “You want something they’ll remember as being a bit different,” he says, pondering a city a long way north of Spain that he asks not to be referenced in this story.

Others are brutally frank, especially when speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Look, you need somewhere you can get in and out of quickly and where people can work in the day and relax and have a beer in the evening,” says a delegate at another event taking place at the same time as VMworld and the Autotask conference, waving a goldfish bowl containing a lurid cocktail and various straws, mixers and accoutrements. “It doesn’t get better than this.”

His female companion, an event manager, raises another large glass to this.

“In tech and pharma, it’s numero uno,” she insists.

My taxi driver to the airport agrees.

“Barcelona is a great city. Here you have all things and we have many, many ejecutivos extranjeros,” he says, using the Castilan word for foreign businessmen and beginning to regale me unnecessarily with tales of where they go after dark.

“The only thing is that many of them don’t tip,” he adds meaningfully as we pull up at the Departures terminal and I reach for my wallet.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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