As the wireless industry gets ready to descend on New Orleans for the annual CTIA convention May 8-10, attendees will bear witness not only to the transformation the city went through, but also to the transition the trade show went through itself.

Many show-goers haven’t been to the Big Easy since 2005, the last time CTIA held a show there. Fast forward seven years, and the city has not only rebuilt itself, but it is capable of accommodating the behemoth that CTIA’s show has become. In fact, CTIA said the reason it didn’t return to New Orleans in intervening years had nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina – the trade show had already outgrown the city’s accommodations when that tragic event occurred.

Apparently, the city and its convention center are ready now. In 2005, the CTIA show had about 30,000 attendees. This year, 40,000+ attendees are expected. Show floor space has increased by more than 2.5 times, and international and partner pavilions have grown from 12 in 2005 to 27 in 2012.

Whereas seven years ago the themes of the CTIA show were driven by wireless service providers and handset manufacturers, that’s not the case these days. This year’s keynotes include a panel with wireless operator executives, but other keynotes feature Mozzilla, Pandora, Spotify, Visa, Electronic Arts and MasterCard. Attendee demographics also have expanded to encompass more retailers, dealers, distributors and resellers.

So is the trade show in a transformation mode, the association itself, or both? Rob Mesirow, vice president and show director for CTIA, said trade shows play the role of early indicators, and they need to be ahead of the market and anticipate – well before their actual debut – what people are going to be talking about or need to talk about 16 months down the line. So as the trade show for the association transforms, so too does the group it represents.

Sometimes components of the trade show can be so far ahead of the market that it’s years before the opportunity is realized. The association has been working on wireless health for years. Same with mobile payments, an area that’s kicking into high gear this year.

Even though the wireless industry has consolidated considerably over the years, new business areas are popping up. New this year is a Solutions Showcase highlighting various vertical markets, including automotive, health and energy.

“We really work hard to extend wireless into every nook and cranny,” Mesirow said. Even with the U.S. penetration rate above 100 percent, “we’ve got a long way to go.”

Mesirow challenges anyone to name an industry that hasn’t been changed by wireless technology. This year, the impact on the finance industry is particularly clear; the keynotes include executives from MasterCard and Visa.

“I love the disruptive nature of wireless,” he said. “The banking industry hasn’t changed … and it’s about to get flipped on its head.”
And topics that might make operators a bit uncomfortable – like competition from over-the-top (OTT) players – are par for the course. At least one session will see Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Google share the stage for a discussion on OTT.

The CTIA Executive Forum, which is designed for a deeper dive than the regular keynotes, will feature Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg and former Verizon Wireless president and CEO Denny Strigl as moderators. Executive Forum pass holders get a little extra added bonus too in that they get access to exclusive reserved seating in the keynote hall – so they’re guaranteed to get a good seat when CNBC host Jim Cramer moderates the carrier roundtable on Tuesday afternoon.