Connecting People to the Network—and to Each Other—In the Era of Digital Events


At an event, a strong network is imperative. Just like adequate lighting, air conditioning, and good accessibility, a strong internet connection is no longer a value-add in our digital age—it’s a requirement for a truly successful event. And as the Head of Transformation Office at Feria de Madrid (IFEMA), it’s always top of my mind.

IFEMA hosts around 100 highly-specialized events every year, including trade fairs, conferences, and private events. We welcome a diverse crowd of around 3.6 million visitors representing over 30,000 companies across various industries—from medical and technical congresses to internal conventions and the general public. We are also the leading trade fair company in Spain (and one of Europe’s top organizers), despite being one of the country’s youngest trade fair institutions. We will celebrate our 40th anniversary this year.  

The economic impact in the Madrid region and in the entire country is impressive. A study conducted with KPMG  found that our direct economic impact is €3.5 billion per year. In addition, the accumulated impact since IFEMA was founded has reached over €20 billion. 

Making the Connection Is a Must

The millions of visitors who come to our events every year have big expectations when it comes to their digital experience—as well they should! Technology is simply too advanced on the consumer side to permit any lag or issues at professional gatherings. And for us in IT, it’s not just our responsibility to ensure everything is good enough—we need to go above and beyond to create truly amazing experiences. 

Unfortunately, we had simply outgrown our older networking equipment. We faced user density problems and ever-increasing amounts of data for the network to manage. We’d reached our limit. 

Like lighting, AC, and good accessibility, a strong network connection at events is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s essential.

From our management’s point of view, there were two key factors that encouraged them to make this IT networking infrastructure investment. First, providing everyone with a free Wi-Fi connection is expected, so it’s become mandatory in our industry.

Second, a strong, scalable network is a competitive advantage for IFEMA. We book events as far as five years out. When we’re negotiating and closing contracts with clients, they need to be confident that the network is prepared to cope with their needs now and into the future. This is a hugely important asset. Our clients know they can trust in us because our network can handle future changes. 

The Secret to System Success: Sourcing the Perfect Partners

As a public institution, we were required to have an open bid process to fairly consider all our options for this massive investment. Though, in the end, our current connectivity partner, Cisco, re-won the contract. 

We rely on papers from industry analyst firms like the Gartner Magic Quadrant (MQ) reports to keep up to date on which providers are advancing in the space. These reports also help us learn about the suitability of various competitors’ products and solutions, and compare them to our current and future needs. Cisco consistently ranks as a Leader in various Gartner MQ reports, particularly in connectivity, where it matters most to us.

We knew from the very beginning of the request for proposal process that this was the technology we wanted. We don’t consider Cisco a technical supplier—Cisco has always been our preferential partner for connectivity.

For large-scale network upgrades, don’t just focus on the hardware—also find the right partner for implementation.

The other key to the success of this project was getting the implementation right the first time. That’s where a strong implementation partner comes into play. We had several offers and ultimately decided on Dimension Data, a Cisco Gold Partner. It was our first time working with them on a project, and we were impressed with their execution and service. 

Executing on the Vision: A Two Month Implementation 

With our partners in place, next came executing on this vision. A major hurdle in our implementation was that we have very limited free time in the halls. This makes large-scale upgrades difficult to pull off. 

For two months each summer, our activity decreases and we host significantly fewer events. That became our only window for any implementation. But based on our booking schedule, we had to get our new system up and running within less than two months this time. We had major events, including a huge technology event, coming up shortly after that lull, so we needed to implement the new Cisco framework during that time. 

This huge project included covering a venue of 200,000 square meters in less than two months with a reduced workforce, being that many employees had booked summer holidays. We had to plan this well in advance because we needed more than 100 people to be involved in the project. 

Even with the collaboration and cooperation of our suppliers, it was both a challenge and a high achievement in expert-level project management. Ultimately, we chose the right partners and managed the project well, so we successfully completed the implementation by the deadline.

A New Day: The Most Modern Event Wi-Fi Network in Europe

Compared to our previous network, the new digital experiences we can offer are like night and day.

Before, we had to analyze logistics in-depth for every event because we needed to install access point reinforcements and do a second installation. That consumed a lot of resources, especially our time. Now, we have a network that’s able to cope with our every need. We are able to offer free connectivity for everyone in the venue for every event. 

In total, we installed more than 1,250 access points: the Cisco Aironet 3800 Series. And we finally got the 802.11ac Wave 2 technology in place. We can now say that, as an events organizer, we have one of the most updated Wi-Fi network in Europe. That’s a huge competitive advantage. 

In all our self-organized events since the implementation, we’ve provided free Wi-Fi service for all attendees. Our exhibitors also required premium connections because they had, and will continue to have, extra bandwidth requirements. We’ve had zero problems on both sides. We were able to provide more than 6,000 concurrent connections for a huge technology event in a single hall without installing any reinforcement access points. That’s a major shift from the past, and everyone has noticed the difference.

One of our most recent events was a technology company—it was one of the most demanding events (from a technical perspective) that we’ve hosted. They used our venue and services before the implementation and again after. We received many compliments, including that they haven't been in any other venue where the network has behaved better from a Wi-Fi perspective. 

The user experience at all our events has drastically improved as well: One of the most recurrent complements from visitors is the flawless connection. 

Offering free Wi-Fi also provides us with benefits, such as implementing solutions like a social login or device tracking. We can learn more about our attendees—their preferences and behavior—and we can use that to our benefit.

Timely, Accurate, Intuitive Reporting

For the management of the network, we use Cisco Prime. Cisco Prime allows us to manage the complete lifecycle of the service. From the planning to the installation, to during the event, it lets us monitor the health and use of the network and behavior of the users. A solid infrastructure isn’t enough—we also need to manage it at the speed our events demand. We get that with Cisco Prime. 

With Cisco Prime, we can even give limited access to everyone—even non-technical users—because it's an intuitive platform. There’s an advanced dashboard where we can manage every technical detail, but it also has an intuitive dashboard that shows the basics of the health and status of our network.

Incomplete reports don't allow you to analyze the needs of your customer.

Cisco Prime’s reporting tool is important because all the event organizers expect a report on their event statistics, from the number of devices per participant to how they interacted with the service. Our customers need this information to be able to plan their future events at different venues. 

Offering such comprehensive, timely reports helps us stand out amongst our competitors. It also helps us assess their needs when customers come to us with reports from their past events. Incomplete reports don't allow you to analyze the needs of your customer. It makes a huge difference when customers come from a venue that has also implemented Cisco Prime and they send us those reports.

Once the event ends, five minutes later we have the complete reports. It's very fast, powerful, simple, and easy to understand. You don't have to waste your time gathering the data in Excel. It's very important for us to have that possibility. So, that truly is key to our success.

We also plan to implement Cisco Umbrella for the security layer, and Cisco DNA Spaces location services. We haven't implemented this yet, but plan to start during the first quarter this year to get it all fully operational by the second quarter. 

I’m still amazed at the progress we’ve made in such a short time. In a few months, we’ve created one of the best networks of any European event space. We’ve been able to set ourselves apart from our competitors while bringing people together through all forms of connectivity. At IFEMA, this is what we do: we connect people—now, and into the future.