by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Brevitur omnia transeunt
Since late yesterday evening the extensive temporary infrastructure erected at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) to support the Web Summit has been coming down to be replaced by still more extensive temporary infrastructure, this time in support of Metropolis, a two day music festival happening at the same venue over 8 different arenas. There’s also a Leinster v Scarlets PRO12 at the campus tonight that’s likely to bring over 18,000 to the RDS. Here today, gone tomorrow is the reality of live events, as expressed so perfectly by Jackson Browne in that paean to a musician’s life on the road, The Load Out:
Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They’ll set it up in another town
The seats are all empty now in Dublin for Web Summit but there are other events t0 fill those seats, to bring people together and ignite the ineffable spark that’s unique to live experiences and the destinations that host them. So as Web Summit heads for Lisbon in 2016 taking with it an annual event that brought tens of thousands of conference attendees to our city it’s worth reflecting on its legacy and on what we learned as a destination during the 5 years that the event grew here from 400 to 30,000 attendees.
Firstly, we now know that large city wide conferences require uncommon levels of collaboration between public and private sectors with both sides focused on delivering the ultimate attendee experience. The collaboration must be such that it unleashes an underlying goodwill. Albeit on a much smaller scale, we had a great example of such collaboration recently for the #MeetinIreland2015 initiative. What we’ve seen in Ireland with the Web Summit over the past month or two is what happens when collaboration fails – relationships get frozen, egos take over and everyone returns to his or her own corner. The song that’s been playing in my mind in that regard is Paddy McAloon’s achingly sad “When love breaks down”
When love breaks down
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you
When love breaks down
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves
Without fair collaboration and honest communication with the fullest possible spectrum of event stakeholders that essential extra spark of good will doesn’t get ignited and, without it, the magic dissipates and dies.
Dublin as a host city
Secondly, despite strident statements to the contrary from Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of the Web Summit, we now know that Dublin can actually host a large city wide event. That it could have been hosted with greater aplomb and seamlessness for a better overall attendee experience is a given but then the necessary collaborative approach wasn’t there and without that the event will always be flawed. But despite the flaws, Dublin did sparkle and shine for Web Summit and this was reflected in the sentiment across all social media platforms which was upbeat and positive in relation to the city. Could the city handle an event with 50,000 or 70,000 attendees (the numbers projected for Lisbon)? It probably could – and does each year in September – but personally I think the tipping point for Dublin – and, indeed, for Web Summit – is 15,000 – 20,000 because after that the event fragments and loses the intimacy that defined it in the first instance.
Prices rise and fall
Amongst its list of cavils, the Web Summit leadership accused the Dublin hotel community of price gouging, citing this as another reason to move the event. Sure hotel prices went up – they went up last month too when One Direction played the 3 Arena and they’ll go up again in June 2016 when 2,500 pig vets descend upon the city and at any other time when demand peaks. Look at what happened in Cardiff during the rugby world cup. But check prices on-line for Lisbon next year over the dates of Web Summit and you’ll find 400% increases over other November dates – a lot more than the 43% premium paid by Web Summit attendees in Dublin according to Trivago’s survey of Dublin prices. So prices will rise and fall with demand and unless there’s significant pan-industry discussion and collaboration – and I don’t mean price-fixing – there’s nothing you can do about it.
But Web Summit also bequeathed a significant and impactful legacy to Dublin as a meetings and events destination. And this is what I’d like to end on. In a recent article for on-line travel portal, Skift, meetings and events specialist Greg Oates asks whether the innovation in meetings and events is coming from inside or outside the meetings industry. The answer is that it’s coming from outside the industry and Web Summit is a great example of the boundless, energetic innovation around the entire conference experience.
You find this innovation in the bite-sized, TED-style sessions that make up the entire education programme at Web Summit. You find it in the exciting collaborations with street artists like Maser on stage design. You find it at the Food Summit, a great partnership between artisan food suppliers in Ireland and the Web Summit (although this year’s heavily over-priced €20 lunch put paid to this once great initiative). You find it too across the social events that brought Web Summit attendees into the very fabric of the city, giving free tickets to locals in exchange for leading pub crawl tours.
You find it too in the speaker roster which has ranged from the founders of major social networks, actresses from Desperate Housewives, leaders of global rock bands along with a few former premier division players and world class rugby athletes in the mix too. For me the final speaker of the Dublin edition of Web Summit was, perhaps, the most inspiring. Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar which, some years ago, merged with Disney. He shared insights on building a company culture that’s truly invested in creativity and innovation. Amongst some real nuggets of wisdom he said:
Measure the team NOT by output but by how much spirit and laughter there is in the room …
For a host of reasons I think Web Summit reached the end of the line in Dublin as regards spirit and laughter. It has become over focused on output and has lost its sense of humour. It’s now heading off to Lisbon in search of better output when what it needs is humility, self deprecation and laughter. Only then is there a chance that the spirit will come back.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are managing Partners at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering strategy, marketing and training for destinations, hotels and venues in the MICE sector.