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Merit of Web Summit complaints lost in self-important bluster

Comment: Public dispute does no favours to Government, summit organisers or Dublin

Why does the Web Summit have demands and grievances few other events seem to have? Which requests are legitimate, which not, and why?

The now very public dispute between the Government - specifically, the Department of the Taoiseach - and the soon-to-be-departing Web Summit event is turning into a rhetorical car crash that only injures both parties.

No-one comes off looking good: the Government, lazy and semi-engaged; the Web Summit, blustering and self-important. The truth is somewhere in between the extremes of presentation.

But what was Web Summit thinking in taking this approach? For a start, there’s an issue with the way it was put into the public domain.

On Thursday, Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave blog-posted a subset of an extended discussion with the department on the basis that it would emerge shortly anyway via Freedom of Information requests.

Sense of grievance

Cosgrave’s sense of grievance on several issues is well justified - more on that in a moment - but, overall, the post is used as a first body blow to Government rather than, as implied, a step towards continuing negotiation for improved conference conditions in Ireland.

As a PR move, though, it has done the job, forcing the Government on the back foot.

A media far too unwilling to question has, with few exceptions, fed the story into a joint frenzy of Government bashing and hand-wringing over the loss of an event which is a phenomenon and hugely entertaining and informative, but, lest we forget, doesn’t even figure in the top 10 largest annual events in Ireland.

Web Summit emails

Alongside probing the Government response to the Summit’s requests, questions that should be asked are whether the conference really warrants treatment as a national treasure? Why does it have demands and grievances few other events seem to have? Which requests are legitimate, which not, and why?

On the first point: it is a unique event that has been rightly valued. However, it is a victim of its own success, at least in the direction organisers have chosen to take it.

Vast entertainment fest

Web Summit is huge and sprawling now, containing 21 individual micro-summits needing different stage areas. It’s more a vast entertainment fest than an intimate networking venue.

It needs the larger space of a similarly vast exhibition centre to work – the RDS barely coped with it last year.

If I were running it, I’d have thought the unique brand value of Web Summit was to limit its size and sprawl and keep it Irish. In Lisbon, it will be just another big tech conference, without the special touch that came from its original Dublin home.

On the second point: for years, people working with the Summit have complained of disorganisation, infighting, and a pugnacious attitude towards anyone with a criticism. I’ve been a victim of that myself on Twitter this week, tweets which are unprofessional, at best. Perhaps personalities are also an exacerbating issue in settling grievances with government and city bodies.

On the issues raised in the few emails contained in the blog post, many are hardly problems for the Taoiseach’s department, even if Cosgrave was told to work with them. Surely an entrepreneurial technology business would take initiative and connect directly to public bodies and individuals that can help address the requests, and perhaps meet them halfway, as on Leap cards (noted below)?

As for the requests themselves, the primary one – on traffic management – is well-warranted. Cosgrave has been raising this for years. This requires a designated conference liaison who can add extra buses, offer discount Leap cards (which, given the price of event tickets, surely could be paid for by Web Summit itself?), issue permits if needed for road closure and sort associated measures like extra Garda traffic management.

VIP escorts laughable

Requests for Garda escorts for VIP tech millionaires, though, is laughable. And it isn’t the Government’s job to intervene in the private market and pressure hotels to keep prices low. That’s an issue for organisers to arrange directly.

Looking at the request list, the real problem is not the requests themselves, for venues, road closures or traffic management. It’s the demand that this all be done with waived fees, meaning on taxpayer money. Other convention cities, like San Francisco, require events to pay for permits for road closures, extra police and fire presence and to reroute public transport.

If Web Summit got offers to have such costs covered by other cities, fine. That’s a business choice, and the world is a competitive market. But if you want to run a conference as a business, it is ironic to expect the public sector and the taxpayer to underwrite the business plan, especially when many other (uncomplaining) events bring in as much, or more, income.

However, the Web Summit/government correspondence makes one thing clear: if Dublin wants to succeed as a conference city, it needs a central co-ordinating body so that event organisers like Web Summit are not forced to run around trying to resolve issues piecemeal. Or have them routinely ignored.

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