ISTANBUL, Turkey — Down the elevator, at the baggage belt and at the exit, the slick, in-your-face advertisements featuring famous crypto personalities were nearly omnipresent at the Istanbul airport.
One of those personalities, when sent a photograph of himself in one of those ads, texted back: “Wow! Even I didn’t know I’m going to be there.”
“There” was Blockchain Economy Istanbul, held July 27-28 and billed as Eurasia’s largest blockchain conference. Conference organizers said 3,000 people showed up along with 50 speakers, including Alex Bornyakov, the face of war-torn Ukraine’s crypto movement.
But the absences were noticeable. Big players like exchanges Binance, FTX and Coinbase (COIN) didn’t have exhibitions. Binance founder Changpeng Zhao did appear in Turkey – via a virtual meeting with the country’s finance minister on the same day as the conference. At a conference touted as the “meeting place for the world’s top crypto companies and blockchain entrepreneurs,” four fireside chats, six panels and 20 keynote addresses were dotted with empty seats, according to attendees.
Given that the crypto bear market was still rampaging, no-shows should probably have been expected.
“The way they marketed it paints a different picture,” said Tony Dhanjal, the head of tax at Koinly, a company that helps track and report crypto taxes. “When you look at it empirically, that did not look like 3,000 people – rather, no more than 1,000. Perhaps, the lack of attendance was reflected in the fact we are in a bear market.”
Others like Didi Wiboonma, chief communications officer of Bitazza.com, praised the diversity in the attendance but said she had come “a long way from Thailand and so was expecting a little bit more advanced content.”
“The conference is less crowded, welcoming and interactive than I anticipated,” said Kimia Hosseinpour, 25, who came with higher expectations after quitting her job as a mechanical engineer, selling her car and vacating her apartment in Washington, D.C., so she could travel. “I enjoyed some of the panels more than the walking around.”
“One may have seen dotted empty seats in the main hall because the attendees were in the expo area,” said organizers from Teklip, while pointing to the post-event report that reflected a sharp decline in onsite attendance post lunch.
“Attendees decide for themselves whether they would like to listen to speeches or explore exhibitions and network. Also, the smoking area at the entrance of the venue was crowded the whole time. The workshop was also carried out.”
Among speakers, long-time Bitcoin evangelist Michael Saylor was the biggest draw, but India-based Fahad Th, an attendee, told CoinDesk he would not have turned up if he knew Saylor would only speak virtually.
“We had the symbol of a phone next to Saylor’s name indicating he would be on video,” said Servi Aman, the event’s head from Teklip, an advertising and media company.
But there was another lesson lurking: Crypto is thriving in Turkey. Eurasia as a region doesn’t have many prominent crypto hubs. Istanbul, the region's financial capital for centuries, is emerging as one and people there showed plenty of enthusiasm, even if crypto bigshots weren’t in attendance at the massive Hilton Istanbul Bomonti Hotel.
The smoking area at the hotel's convention floor reflected that local buzz. At any given point in time, with smokes in hand and an idea on their lips, dozens of Turkey’s crypto enthusiasts reflected on protocols, pitched journalists, and discussed partnerships.
Several announcements made at the event indicated what was visible in the exhibitor hall: an obliviousness to the crypto bear market, especially when there was a Turkish connection.
Crypto exchange AAX announced its expansion in Turkey, appointing a crypto lawyer and ex-Binance official, Anadolu Aydınlı, as its country director. AAX’s confidence in Turkey was based on a study it commissioned that found 16% of Turkey’s population – approximately 13.6 million people – own bitcoin (BTC).
The paparazzi crowded Engin Altan Düzyatan, the star of the globally acclaimed series “Resurrection: Ertuğrul” – the Turkish “Game of Thrones” – as he announced he’s now the co-founder of a metaverse game based on the show titled “Medieval Empires: Ertugrul.”
A child-like curiosity was in the air, best exemplified by students from the blockchain community of Cankaya University, based in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.
The students sealed an impromptu partnership with QAN, a Quantum resistant layer 1 hybrid blockchain. The deal included QAN providing guest lectures and starting a talent management program at the university.
One young man stood out for not being where he should be – in school. A 15-year-old crypto trader named Efe Kelemci came to Istanbul to achieve his larger aim to educate teens to be financially independent, something he started doing through crypto at age 13 with $1,000 he saved up from birthdays. In Istanbul, he attempted to take it a step further, seeking partnerships for his upcoming decentralized finance (DeFi) venture.
It didn’t matter to Kelemci that crypto big shots didn’t come. Local enthusiasm, and the presence of notable even if not the biggest companies such as Gari Network, Uphold and KuCoin were enough to satisfy his youthful exuberance.
CORRECTION (Aug. 23, 2022 10:30 UTC) Makes clear in eighth paragraph that event attendee Kimia Hosseinpour's reason for changes in her lifestyle were so that she could travel. In seventh paragraph, corrects Didi Wiboonma's job title, having given CoinDesk the wrong business card.
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