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Battle of the trade shows: Why Europe rules

After six days in Barcelona I'm packing up and heading home, but not with learning some important lessons about why trade shows in Europe are best. Take a lesson CES.

After attending CES four times, CTIA eight times, Macworld two times, and several smaller show in between, I thought I have the whole trade thing mastered. You spend the day meeting with companies, wandering the show floor, and battling crowds before returning to your hotel for a night of work. You also go a few days without enough sleep or a decent meal. As I prepared for the GSMA World Congress, I knew it would be different--a different continent, a different culture, a different language, and an international focus. I had no idea of just how different it would be.

Now that GSMA is over, I can say without a doubt that it was the best trade show I've attended. In almost every way, GSMA is better organized than anything we have in the United States, particularly the huge and uberhyped CES. Follow along as I keep score.

T-Mobile's snazzy stand. Kent German/CNET Networks

At GSMA, company booths are called stands. Though such terminology kept me thinking of a lemonade stand, the stands can be massive with a full set of amenities (Nokia even had a doctor on staff). For instance, consider the T-Mobile stand, which was its own building. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a reflecting pool with a sculpture. There was a terrace where you could get a drink. Worried about the chilly weather? Don't be, they installed heating lamps there to keep you warm.

Nokia's hospitality suite. Kent German/CNET Networks

But best of all, GSMA introduced me to the concept of a hospitality suite. This is something unheard of at American trade shows, which is an awful shame. A hospitality suite is a separate area away from the riffraff of the show floor. It is where journalists and analysts can get product demos and talk with company executives in peace. You can sit down, relax, have a snack, or sip a refreshing beverage (some companies even offered booze). It was a very civilized way to conduct your business of the day. Nokia's hospitality suite spanned almost the entire second floor of the company's stand and was larger than my first apartment. I wondered why the idea developed at European trade shows and I just couldn't figure it out; maybe European journalists are just fussier. One thing GSMA doesn't have, and not that this is a bad thing, are scantily-clad booth babes milling about. Perhaps it's because "stand babes" sounds pretty silly.

Fira de Barcelona With Montjuic above. Kent German/CNET Networks

This is a no brainer. Instead of the generic and relatively sterile Las Vegas Convention Center, GSMA is held at the Fira de Barcelona, which sits at the foot of the city's Montjuic area (site of the 1992 Olympics). In between the show buildings is a very cool fountain, while towering above is the beautiful Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The show buildings were pleasant, and some even had natural light inside. But best of all, the Fira de Barcelona is near the center of town with easy access via the city's bus and Metro network. And as show attendee, I was given free use of the Metro for five days. CES on the other hand is held in Las Vegas with little public transit outside of the Disneyland-esque monorail. Getting anywhere in Vegas during CES is a gigantic hassle with taxi lines that stretch for days. While I love Vegas for a weekend trip, it can't compete with the beauty and atmosphere of Barcelona. The only downsides of GSMA were the distance (a long flight from San Francisco) and that the area around the show seemed to be rife with pickpockets--poor Bonnie Cha even fell victim--but GSMA still wins this round.

I have to give it to CES for this category as Las Vegas just seems to have more hotels rooms to support the show. When I tried to book a Barcelona room six months ago, almost everything was taken. For those rooms that were available, the rates could cost as much as 800 euros a night (about $1,177). I ended up renting an apartment that lacked a working heater, so it was frigid at night. While Bonnie found a hotel, the Wi-Fi kept breaking.

One of the on-site table-service restaurants. Kent German/CNET Networks

On-site food:
GSMA wins again here. At CES, the convention center eating options are limited to overpriced fast food stands. GSMA has sit-down restaurants with table service and real menus. Here again, you can get alcohol. The food at the stands was better as well. Yahoo offered several candy bins and gelato.

Show news:
Of course, I have to rate the show news. Yes, I'm comparing apples and oranges here, but GSMA's international focus makes it much more interesting. It puts CES to shame as far as mobile news, which makes sense considering it's a mobile show, but also there seemed to be more a focus on substance rather than hype.

So CES, there several things you could do to make yourself more bearable. You can start by taking lessons from your European friends. After all, it beat you four to one.