Behind the Scenes at Mobile World Congress – An Interview with Michael O’Hara

Ever wondered what it’s like to organise an event with over 95,000 attendees? We caught up with Michael O’Hara from Mobile World Congress during his recent trip to Belfast and asked him a few questions about organising one of the worlds largest technology conferences.

Michael is Chief Marketing Officer for the GSMA and leads their global marketing and communications initiatives, including programme development and marketing for Mobile World Congress. He’s a Northern Ireland native living in Boston and started his career at Nortel Networks in Monkstown, working there for 14 years, with his final role being Chief Marketing Officer for Europe.

I asked Michael 9 questions about organising Mobile World Congress and how we can support startups in Northern Ireland, here’s what he had to say…

1. What are some of the challenges you’re faced with when organising an event of such enormous scale?

The biggest challenge is finding a venue and city that can cope with 95,000 attendees and 2,000 exhibitors. We are very lucky to have a great partnership with the city of Barcelona. They work very closely with us on every aspect of the event, and the results are amazing.

2. What’s the marketing strategy you’re using each year to drive the growth in new attendees?

We know the audience we want at the show, both in terms of people that have been there before and also the targets we have as we take the show into more verticals. We use a variety of techniques to manage our relationship and engage with these audiences, and have been really successful in getting the right people on the ground. Of course the nature of this event in many ways drives the attendance itself, but our careful work and analysis allows us to bring in the new people that keep the event fresh and dynamic.

3. What role does technology play during the event?

A lot! We try to use mobile technology as much as we can across the event, using a mobile app for registration and digital badges to obtain entry to the show. We also provide a lot of information to our attendees including details of the conference programme, the length of taxi queues, restaurant lines, way finding around the venue and of course networking functions. We supplement the information available on mobile with kiosks around the halls to help people get easy access to the information they need.

4. Do you use a mobile application for facilitating networking at the event and how successful has this been for you?

We do have networking functionality in the app and its a popular feature, although not one of the leading features. Many attendees are well networked and know who they want to meet at Congress so they sort it out before they get there. But we are looking at ways to enhance the online networking to make it simpler, and hopefully drive adoption up.

5. I can imagine registration for 95,000+ attendees is a massive challenge. What’s your process for managing this effectively?

We have a very robust registration system that we have developed over the years. Registration can be either via the website or the app, and we provide the usual functionality including confirmations etc. We also work closely with our exhibitors to register their attendees, and have a very robust system for press accreditation and registration. We do insist that attendees at the show carry ID with them to validate they are who they say on the badge – this essentially stops badge sharing.

6. What role does social media play during the event?

From our side as organisers, two primary areas – as a channel for us to communicate with attendees, and of course a channel for them to talk to us. We have seen this develop a lot over the last few years and now have dedicated customer care social media assistants engaging with the attendees. Social has become the primary way people let us know about issues they are having, and of course we are very keen to respond and address their concerns. In the broader context of the show, there is of course huge noise across the #MWC15 tag – we trend regularly with all the exciting announcements taking place.

7. What advice would you give to anyone attending Congress in 2016 to get the most out of it?

Plan way in advance. Get yourself booked in a hotel, learn the routes to the venue, and read as much information as you can online to understand who and what is where and when at the show. It’s a huge venue – about a mile end to end – so go in there with a plan of what you want to do and who you want to see. Oh and wear comfortable shoes!

8. What do you have lined up for Congress 2016? What are you most excited about?

Its a little early to say, but the plan is always to provide the most compelling content available for the mobile audience. We do a lot of analysis on feedback from attendees and work to improve their experience every year. We are right in the middle of that work now, and will start implementing the improvement plans soon.

9. You’re very passionate about seeing companies at home succeed. What one piece of advice would you give to Northern Ireland entrepreneurs?

That’s a broad question but here goes. The future for Northern Ireland has to come from home grown companies started by local entrepreneurs, so we need to do all we can to help them succeed. What I would say is get a great idea, a simple marketing message, and then work your ass off to get the product sold. There is no substitute for really hard work. But there is no reward like seeing a new idea succeed.