ITU Telecom World Expo Shifts in Response to Economic Crisis

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The ITU Telecom World exhibition has returned to Geneva after a visit to Hong Kong in 2006 -- and has brought many Asian exhibitors back with it. There are also signs that the way some companies are using the show is shifting.

The booths of China Mobile, ZTE and Datang Telecom Group loom over the entrance to the main hall, alongside those of NTT DoCoMo and Fujitsu, while upstairs Huawei Technologies and Samsung Electronics booths dwarf that of Cisco Systems, which has more meeting rooms than products on display.

"Ten months ago, people were urging us to cancel the event," said Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, which organizes the exhibition and the policy forum that runs alongside it.

The pessimists feared that the show would attract neither exhibitors nor visitors, as companies slashed marketing budgets and cut back on business travel in the midst of the economic downturn.

While the show is noticeably smaller than previous editions -- it only occupies Halls 2, 4 and 5 of the sprawling seven-hall Palexpo exhibition center, with some yawning gaps between stands, Touré is satisfied.

"It's a good show, despite the crisis," he said. The ITU still expects 40,000 visitors at this year's show; 82,000 turned up at the last Geneva event, in 2003.

This year, around half the show is occupied by national pavilions: Saudi Arabia has the biggest, followed by those of Spain and Russia. Other European nations, including Belgium, France and the U.K., also have pavilions, but by far the most numerous are those of the African nations: Burundi, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Microsoft and IBM have booths, but you'd barely notice. The biggest company stands are those of the Asian network operators and equipment manufacturers, with the U.S. and Western European countries keeping a low profile.

This domination of the show floor is not down to size alone: It's also about tactics. Russia deployed what looked like an army of violinists dressed mostly in sequins on its stand on Monday. There were actually only three of them, but their effect was magnified by loud music and the multiple video walls on the booth.

China Mobile has taken a similar route, with the logo of its 3G mobile brand, Wo, swirling and pulsing hypnotically across the walls and even the ceiling of its booth.

ZTE has taken a more traditional route, with glass cases full of mobile phones, modems and cellular base stations. Similar exhibits fill the stands at NTT DoCoMo and Samsung.

On the Cisco booth, there are almost no products to be seen -- unless you count the looming bulk of one of its TelePresence systems, linking the booth in high resolution to similar systems around the world. Other elements of the Cisco product range are present virtually thanks to another screen, supplied by Massachusetts-based Kaon Interactive. This shows images of the products that can be rotated on screen to examine them from different angles -- and even measured or dismantled so that prospective buyers can figure out whether they would fit in their data center.

Like Secretary-General Touré, Cisco faced a crucial decision last year about whether to maintain a show presence in Geneva.

"One year ago, it wasn't clear how many customers were going to make this trip," said Suraj Shetty, the company's vice president of worldwide service provider marketing.

However, the company realized that "this could be used as an opportunity to shift how we get contact with customers," he said.

That's why the rest of the stand is given over to meeting rooms.

"Our focus is on customer intimacy," Shetty said.

Carrier Ethernet specialist Ciena has taken a similar approach. Its stand, close to Cisco's and even more discreet, consists entirely of meeting rooms. Like Cisco, it prefers to show products virtually, rather than physically.

"Computer graphics and touch screens are more effective in these cases. That's the trend," said Ciena CTO Stephen Alexander.

If you're buying bulky network or data center infrastructure, then don't expect to kick the tires at a trade show next year -- although you might be able to click on them, on the booth's screen or your own.

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