Attended the 3GSM World Congress last week – a massive tradeshow for the world’s mobile industry. It had outgrown Cannes (which is where it has in the past been held annually) and frankly I think that even the city of Barcelona felt overwhelmed. It took place at the Fira de Barcelona – which is an exhibition centre not far from the centre of town comprising 8 massive halls between Placa Espanya (a big roundabout) and the Palau National de Montjuïc (a big palace on a hill). There were over 50,000 attendees and nearly a thousand exhibitors – and several CEO summit-style conferences were all taking place at the same time there. All the world’s major tech and service companies involved in mobile were there – many providing trade journalists with all-expenses-paid packages to be there in return for good writeups – and several governmental trade missions will have used the event to further relationships with this industry which, in the UK alone, contributes 1% to the national GDP.

Needless to say, every single hotel room in the city was booked – and every single seat on flights to the city were booked up for months in advance as the airlines took every opportunity to rip people off for direct flights from major cities elsewhere in the world.

I travelled Monday, attended the event Tuesday and Wednesday and travelled back home Thursday. I refused to pay the extortionate prices for direct flights from London (circa £600 return) – so managed to get a a cheaper ticket (£120 return) with KLM from Heathrow via Schipol in Amsterdam. OK so the journey time was longer by a 2 to 3 hours each way – but it felt a lot better doing that than lining the pockets of British rip-off Airways.

3GSM World Congress
(On Avinguda de Maria Cristina looking up towards Palau National de Montjuïc)

I’ve been to Barcelona before on business, but never really got to know this city very well on those occasions. This is the effect of stepping out of airports and hotels and stepping straight into taxis. You’re never quite in touch with the rhythm of a city until you’ve experienced moving with the people of the city in the way that they do. So this time around I schlepped it on the trains tubes and buses. (Did I say tube? I meant “metro”.)

The train into town from the airport was cheap and efficient. As is the metro. The metro trains themselves are like a cross between the Paris metro and the Hong Kong MTR: the doors have little handles in them that are used to open them at stops – and some trains are made up of carriages that you can walk right through from one end of the train to the other. Because the trains are just below the street level you can get a mobile phone signal on most of the system – and the time it takes to get from surface to train and vice versa is kept to a minimum. I don’t know whether it was because of the 3GSM event or not – but I noticed a lot of security police with scary-looking dogs patrolling the trains and the streets over the few days that I was there.

Just about every major advertising space in the city was taken by the mobile phone industry. And in many cases the entire fronts and sides of massive buildings and hotels were draped in massive adverts. By the time I left the city I was sick of “Hello Moto“. Go on – click that link to get an idea of the sort of picture you would see plastered all over the side of a 10 storey building. They were everywhere, featuring different human models of various ethnic backgrounds all dressed up and made up to look like internationally correct customers – but mostly looking like they had come fresh off the set of a Gap commercial.

I did a lot of walking. Mostly between the nearest metro stations of near convention centre and my hotel – which was not too far from the south end of Las Ramblas which is a touristy sort of pedestrianised street in the old and scenic part of town. The funny thing is I also got stopped by a number of Spanish tourists who wanted to know the directions to various places. In some cases I was able to help despite my Spanish not being very good at all! This reminded me my times in New York and Los Angeles – where I would often get mistaken for being of Latin American origin. Personally I consider it an advantage being an Indian in the tourist centre of Barcelona – or indeed any country lining the Mediterranean. You’re less likely to get treated differently when interacting with local people. For example – I went into a coffee shop which was on my way from my hotel to the local tube station one morning. The guy in front of me was clearly a foriegner – a British guy attending 3GSM probably. (Just like me!) He ordered a coffee – but the shop assistant qualified his request by shouting “American?” – and he nodded. What he got served was a normal cup of black coffee – which was served in a normal cup, with some sugar and milk on the side. I was up next – and ordered coffee too. But this time the assistant didn’t qualify my request – and I got a “real” coffee – more like an espresso, in a tiny little cup – and no mik or sugar on the side. That made me feel great. And the coffee tasted fantastic too.

I have now made my mind up to come to Barcelona again at some point. For pleasure. There is so much to see and do in this town – a couple of days on business does it no justice at all.

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