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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Stuck like Glue

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 14.16.05It never happened to me – I’ve been stuck like glue to Rita Smyth since I was 19 – but others tell me that relationship break-ups often end with a statement supposed to fill the jilted party with reassurance “it’s not you, it’s me”, meaning “you haven’t done anything wrong, it’s my fault that we’re breaking up”.  You blame yourself, try to soften the blow but, ultimately, conceal the real reason for the break-up.

From Dublin to Lisbon

This week’s announcements that the Web Summit will up sticks and decamp from Dublin to Lisbon had a ring of “It’s not you, it’s me” about it. In a blogpost published the same morning as he sat beside his new suitors in Portugal to announce Lisbon as the Web Summit’s new home Paddy Cosgrave, Founder and CEO, expressed gratitude to the first Irish attendees and Irish start-up community “who helped turn our tiny idea into something beyond anything we ever imagined”. He also explained the move in the following terms:

… it has not been an easy decision to move Web Summit from its Irish home. We are going because we want to take the next step on our journey to international growth. … We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best … Lisbon is a great city with a thriving startup community. What’s more, it has great transport and hotel infrastructure and a state-of-the-art venue with capacity for more than 80,000 attendees …

More than meets the eye

Like all “it’s not you, it’s me” break-ups there’s definitely more to this than Paddy is admitting and the real reason is undoubtedly something to do with the size and extent of the subvention being offered by his new Portuguese hosts. The reasons he gives in his blogpost – which was re-published in the Irish Times – don’t actually stack up and, in the interests of destination pride, they deserve to be challenged.

Destination Selection

Large Associations and Professional conference organisers (PCOs) who operate “city-wide” event usually consider 6 criteria in evaluating the suitability of a destination for a particular conference or event: safety, infrastructure, access, value, overall appeal and destination support. The criteria will be weighted differently depending on the type of event you’re organizing but successful destination selection usually involves a balanced selection of all 6.

Regarding safety and infrastructure I see little difference between Dublin and Lisbon – both are wonderfully secure destinations with similar numbers of beds across the full accommodation spectrum. When it comes to access Dublin has much better transatlantic service and significantly better low cost direct connectivity around Europe – surely a key benefit for start-up companies? On the value side Dublin is more expensive than Lisbon across several metrics including hotels, taxis and the price of an espresso but this has always been the case and didn’t prevent the Web Summit from growing to 30,000 visitors.

Destination Appeal

And now we’re down to overall appeal and destination support. Having operated conferences and events all over the world – including Lisbon – I can state categorically that Dublin has massive appeal for conference delegates. In fact attendance at international conferences that rotate around the globe will increase by up 20% when Dublin is the destination. But there’s more to destination appeal when it concerns the Web Summit. It was conceived and born in Dublin and, after 5 years, has a life of its own, influenced robustly with the physiognomy and personality of the city itself. The Web Summit is Dublin.

That leaves destination support – a catch-all term that includes all of the support services like AV, production and logistics as well as subvention, the financial or in-kind support provided to the event by the country that hosts it – a common factor, it should be stated, in large city-wide events. And herein, methinks, the real reason why the Web Summit is going to Lisbon. There’s no mention in Paddy’s blog of any financial incentive offered by Lisbon to secure the event but you can be sure there is one and that it’s substantial.

Will it work?

So Dublin’s loss is Lisbon’s gain but will the Web Summit work there? Will it continue to grow and eventually fill the 80,000 capacity “state-of-the-art” venue that’ll host it from 2016 onwards? I’m not sure. I remain convinced that the growth of the Web Summit was as much to do with the fact that Dublin was its home as Paddy’s undoubted vision, talent and drive. I’m not so sure it’ll double again in size over the next 5 years. We’re in the midst of a zeitgeist that yearns for human connections, intimacy, real-time relationships all things not absent in Lisbon but especially present, definitively and decisively, in Dublin. Indeed maybe the Web Summit shouldn’t grow but be capped at 20,000 – a number that fits snugly into Dublin while bringing out the full village feel of our great city?

All those years ago

After the first Web Summit, when Patrick and I were still with MCI Dublin, Paddy and his team visited with us to discuss possible collaboration. We hoped they’d outsource the Web Summit to us and highlighted our global experience with large events as part of our pitch – we had recently completed a EULAR event in Rome with 20,000 attendees. But I also recall saying how, perhaps, the Web Summit might never leave Dublin, becoming as identified with Ireland’s capital as the Cannes Film Festival or the Davos Economic Summit were to their host locations. I remember saying how issues around access, infrastructure, value – even shit WiFi – ultimately were obsolete for marque events like these. At a certain stage the event became the city and vice versa and you could never stage it elsewhere without altering its DNA.

I think this will be the case with the Web Summit. Lisbon will be different, still great I hope, but a different delegate experience to what defined the Web Summit and not the one that grew in Dublin to a mighty oak from a very tiny seed.

Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are SoolNua, a boutique advisory | consultancy working with destinations, venues and hotels on marketing, strategy and training for the MICE sector.

He is a regular attendee at the Web Summit.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Web Summit leaving Dublin – “It’s not you, it’s me!”

  1. Gerry Dawson says:

    Largely agree with your comments Padraic, as I have been working extensively between London, Dublin and Lisbon for the past few years. For sure Web Summit Lisbon will have a different flavour to Dublin and I suspect 2016 will not achieve this year’s attendance levels for some of your reasons indicated, as we Irish constantly ‘box above our weight’ – and of course Paddy and his team have a right to grow their business, for which I have a lot of empathy. But let’s not fool ourselves, Dublin in the Autumn has become expensive as a destination, so it must pay a price!

  2. James Latham says:

    Padraic – the world has moved on from the hygiene factors + subventions debate, surely? Perhaps the start up culture and knowledge base of Lisbon is a genuine basis for change? Look at Barcelona and London in the mobile tech sector and the joined-up thinking in play. No city, even Dublin, has a monopoly on these new intellectual factors in a hyper-mobile global economy where the battle for talent and investment are king?

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