Opinion: Why Barcelona's Gran Via is the perfect venue for ISE, but beware the locals

Editor Michael Garwood compares his experiences of attending trade shows at Gran Via and the RAI, plus offers his tips on everything to make your visit a safe and successful one
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So, after 14 years at the RAI in Amsterdam, Integrated Systems Europe (ISE to, well, everyone) is heading 1,000 miles south to its new home, the Gran Via in Barcelona.

The news may not have come as a complete shock to many – at least from the majority of people we spoke with in our industry reaction piece - as speculation of a move has been rife for some time.

Indeed, the show's, MD Mike Blackman even confessed to AVTE in February (during ISE 2018) that he had held discussions with other venues and that the current deal with the RAI only had two years left to run. Despite his best efforts, it seemed clear from that conversation – plus sporadic interrogations during random alcohol induced AV related events – that the door on the RAI was closing.

Clearly this is a major blow to the RAI and Amsterdam, with ISE not only the biggest AV trade show on the planet, but also the biggest annual event of any kind for the city. So, from their point of view, there is no possibility of filling the void.

Pic for InfoComm RAI story

But business is business – and ISE is in the enviable position where its growth remains as impressive as it is consistent and a world away from its debut in 2004 (its first and only year in Geneva), attracting just 120 exhibitors and 3,500 attendees.

  • Annual growth in ISE in exhibitors and attendees approaching 10 per cent
  • This included 80,923 attendees in 2018, up from 73,000 year-on-year
  • Of those, 22,000 were visiting the show for the first time.
  • There were 1,296 exhibitors in 2018
  • Of which 294 were new to the show
  • Exhibitors occupied 53,000 net sqm of floor space in 15 halls in 2018
  • This is up from just 2,800 when the show first began in 2004, and double since 2010
  • International AV market forecast to grow by 5 per cent per annum through to 2021
  • 2019 is expected to increase on these record-breaking figures.

Whilst sad for the RAI (financially), and those that enjoy a jaunt (that’s ‘jaunt’ not ‘joint’) to the Dutch capital each year, it’s a move that makes complete sense (to me) – on many different levels.

Best of both world's

As someone now celebrating his first year in the AV industry and one ISE under his belt, my experience of the RAI so far is limited. I had no affection for the venue before ISE and I certainly don’t have any post ISE.

Now, it’s clear that the RAI is a very popular and very successful venue.

According to its website, more than 1.6 million visitors attend its various halls every year. It holds 50-plus international conferences, 70-plus exhibitions, shows and events, plus around 1,000 smaller conferences and meetings. So, there's no debating its credentials. 

However, when it comes to hosting an event the size of ISE, the RAI struggles to cope. 

With the venue’s origins dating back to the late eighteen hundreds, it’s expansion over the years has left it structurally disjointed, confusing and (incredibly) frustrating. 

To be blunt, finding your way around ISE and its 15 halls is challenging at best, a bloody nightmare at worst.

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The level of profanity uttered (mostly) under my breath (often wolf man like staring at the ceiling) as I attempted to find my way to meetings would have caused sensors to wince in a Tarantino movie. Lose your map, and it’s game over.

But, even if you do know where you’re going, getting to your destination still remains a challenge. With so many exhibitors, walking space is at a premium (particularly when compared to InfoComm). Every turn, particularly in the first two days, feels like you’re walking out of a concert, often pigeon stepping and treading on the backs of people's heals.

For a journalist forever trying to arrive at appointments on time, this proved to be a major problem.

Gran Via

Now, whilst my experiences at the RAI remain limited, the same can not be said for its new home in Barcelona.

The Gran Via has been an ever present in my career for more than a decade, mostly through attending Mobile World Congress (my last in 2017). I consider this a perfect choice for ISE.

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Unlike the RAI, the Gran Via is a relatively young purpose built venue, having only opened in 2007. Following some recent(ish) expansions to its eight giant high ceiling halls, it now has more than 200,000sqm of floor space available. To draw comparisons, exhibitors at ISE 2017 covered around 53,313sqm.

On my last visit to Mobile World Congress, attendance numbers were close to 110,000 and, whilst very busy, it didn't have the same claustrophobic feel.

A major part of this is down to its design, making it simple to find where you want/need to go – quickly. 

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For the Gran Via has a second level walkway, which travels through the spine of the venue. This provides a birds eye view of the halls below and is a great way of spotting the stands you wish to visit (or become inspired to do so), but crucially it means you have an almost direct route the hall you wish to visit. So, whilst there may be 100,000 people in the building, a sizeable percentage of them will be patrolling the halls at any given time. The venue even has airport style moving walkways to help you get from one hall to the next (essential when travelling from Hall 1 to Hall 8).

Restaurants, press rooms, bars, chill-out gardens amongst other things can be found en route. If you need to escape, or just get some fresh air, there are plenty of opportunities without physically leaving the venue.

In and out

Getting to and from the venue however can be a little problematic, particularly during rush hour times (opening and closing times).

Waiting times for a taxi can be painful, often resembling a chained queuing system akin to an Alton Towers ride in the summer. And even when you get your taxi, you’re still faced with the rush-hour traffic of Barcelona.

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The Gran Via is served by its own train station located around a five minute walk away. At busy times, this closely resembles that of a rush hour crush on the London Underground with long queuing times. With the location of the Gran Via, almost everyone will be heading in the same direction, changing at the Plaça d'Espanya station (where it terminates) one stop away, which connects to lines, which cover the rest of the city.

If you’re in the process of booking hotels and want somewhere close to the coast and near the popular tourist haunt of La Ramblas, base your decision on the LF (green) line.

Safety

My experiences of the Gran Via have always been positive. Safety is clearly paramount, with the local police (soldiers) always on site and armed to the teeth should anything or anyone get out of control. 

However, one word of caution. Away from the venue, and whilst Barcelona is a great city, filled with amazing (English speaking) people, it can be a dangerous one.

Barcelona is the pickpocket capital of the world, with some police figures suggesting as many as 6,000 offences a day. Wallets, watches, laptops, tablets and mobile phones. If you’re seen to have one, you are a potential target – especially on La Ramblas.

In 2017, I had my iPhone stolen whilst waiting to be served at a busy Irish bar. Having checked my phone to read a text message, I may as well have worn a signpost. Within seconds, it had gone. I have many friends and colleagues that can tell similar stories.

My old boss had his SLR camera stolen whilst enjoying a pint in broad daylight. A man and his alleged wife came over to his table displaying a map asking for directions. This was used to shield his view from the table, whilst his camera was calmly removed. By the time he’d realised, they were long gone.

One cocky sod even stole my colleagues phone as we walked back to our hotel at night, first having the audacity to hand it back and telling us to be more careful, before carrying out the same trick again, this time bolting.

La Ramblas, particularly at night when the crowds have died down, can also be a very vulnerable place if walking alone, which you should never do!

In addition to the traditional pickpockets, The street are frequently lined with individuals trying to sell you drugs, whilst ladies of the night (no red lit windows here) – many of whom will find ways of relieving you of your hard earned cash and possessions, regardless if you decide to take them up on their kind offer or not. Don’t ever shake their hands or accept a hug, however friendly they might seem.

Such crimes are unsurprisingly not investigated, but should you happen to fall victim, you'll need a crime reference number for your insurance. Conveniently, there is (usually) a police station located at the Gran Via. It's as if they expect it. 

That said, Barcelona is a truly stunning city and one well worth exploring if you get the chance during your visit. 

An excellent venue for ISE 2021 and beyond. 

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