Web Summit: Surf’s up as Lisbon prepares warm welcome

Amid all the debate around Dublin’s loss of the event, the move was a major coup for Portugal

 

Driving from Lisbon city centre towards Parque das Nações in the east of the city, a warm winter breeze washes in from the Atlantic Ocean.

The vast complex at the edge of Lisbon shot to prominence when it was named as the new venue for the Web Summit, the tech event co-founded by Irish entrepreneur Paddy Cosgrave in 2010.

The decision by the founders to move the event from Dublin to Lisbon, and the unseemly public row that ensued following the release of correspondence between Cosgrave and the Government, generated widespread controversy, as views differed over whether Dublin had done enough to keep the event in Ireland.

Amid all the controversy, one fact remains indisputable – the move was a major coup for Portugal.

The country of 10 million people which, like Ireland, recently emerged from an IMF-EU bailout, has been quietly building up a presence on the tech scene.

Companies such as London-based HouseTrip, a house rental website akin to Airbnb, have been hiring in Lisbon, while the country has a vibrant start-up scene, typified by Lisbon-based company Codacy, the winner of the Pitch start-up competition at the 2014 Dublin Web Summit.

Low cost of living

Fuelled by a strong supply of programmers and tech-based entrepreneurs who found themselves out of work during the economic crisis, and offering one of the lowest cost of living and working in the EU, Portugal is increasingly being seen as an investment location by new and established tech companies. Some of these tech firms also see it as a launch pad for expansion into South America.

The bid to secure the Web Summit was the result of a combined effort involving the office of the mayor of Lisbon, government representatives, the various private companies behind the Parque das Nações complex and the country’s inward investment agency AICEP, Portugal’s equivalent to IDA Ireland.

In total, the government offered €1.3 million to the Web Summit to host the event over three years.

Lisbon beat Amsterdam to the post, with Barcelona also in the running. The new left-wing government, elected in November after the deal was signed, has signalled its commitment to the project.

Standing outside the main MEO arena in the Parque das Nações on a warm December day, it is not difficult to see why the Web Summit founders’ heads were turned.

Known locally as “Expo”, the venue was constructed in 1998 for the World Exposition. It boasts a shopping centre, nine hotels within walking distance, a subway line, three conference buildings, an aquarium and two towers containing residential apartments.

Criticisms

The former industrial site looks out on to the estuary of the river Tejo which flows into the Atlantic.

On this quiet winter morning, cable cars glide over the glistening water carrying tourists to and fro between buildings. The scene is sunny and serene. Nonetheless, some of the criticisms levelled at the venue are not unfounded.

Located 10 kilometres outside the city centre, the site feels somewhat disconnected from the buzz of Lisbon, an isolation underlined by the half-hour car journey along graffiti-filled walls and warehouses that track the railway line from the centre to the Expo.

Although the scale of the site is impressive, its design feels dated, lacking the modernity of Irish sites such as Grand Canal Dock and the Convention Centre, or the charm of the RDS.

For Jorge Vinha da Silva, managing director of Arena Atlantico, the private company behind the main venues at the site, however, the news that Web Summit is moving from Dublin to Lisbon is nothing but positive.

Bright and enthusiastic, he was centrally involved in the bidding process for the Web Summit and believes Portugal is well-placed to bring the event to its next phase

“The Web Summit is really a case study in what a start-up can achieve. It began as a small event with 400 attendees in 2010. It grew to 40,000 people in Dublin this year.

“We have the expectations to grow that number over next three years in Lisbon. We’re targeting 50,000 attendees in 2016.”

Selling points

Asked about the venue’s main selling points, he replies without hesitation, “space”, before adding with a smile, “and of course wifi”.

“Space, capacity, is the main advantage you can bring to an event. Here you don’t have to walk so long between the different buildings. You just cross the street to get from venue to venue,” Da Silva says.

The organisers also plan to make use of the country’s temperate climate and use the outdoor space. “You can create a closed area all around the three main buildings. We often do it for big events,” he says. “We have different solutions.”

In terms of its experience in event management, the site has hosted everything from the MTV movie awards, WWF wrestling events and large-scale medical conferences since the World Expo took place in 1998.

However, despite its track record in running events for tens of thousands of participants, it has not yet held an event for more than 30,000 people. Is Da Silvo confident the organisation has the capacity to deal with the 50,000 attendees it is targeting in its first year?

“Of course the Web Summit is a unique event but we have plenty of congresses all year round. It’s just a matter of scale. If you have enough space, it’s not a problem.”

Another issue he insists will not be a problem is wifi. Patchy wifi access plagued the Web Summit in Dublin in recent years, with attendees, journalists and the giants of the tech world grappling with connectivity problems.

Because the main sponsor of the Expo’s main building is telecommunications company MEO, Da Silva says wifi will not be an issue. “As they are a communication company, we have a state-of-the-art wifi system which is crucial to this type of event.”

Wifi issues

Although Da Silva, who spent five days in Dublin in November watching how the 2015 Web Summit was put together, is reluctant to criticise his predecessors, he says almost everyone whom spoke to in Dublin raised the issue of wifi.

He believes the RDS was simply too small for the event.

“Even this year, the event was too big for the venue. There were some really nice spaces, for example the library where they put one of the stages, but the event was too big. You have to walk big distances between the two main buildings and the food summit and so on.

“If you want to grow the number of attendees, you need better infrastructure.”

As for the impact of the Web Summit on the wider economy of Lisbon and Portugal, officials hope the event will not just generate millions in spin-off revenue for the hospitality, travel and tourism industry, but also that Portugal taps into probably the most exclusive attribute of the event – the presence of so many giants from the tech world, who they hope may forge more long-term links with the Lisbon area.

“Start-ups are bubbling in Lisbon. We have a new generation with English language skills,” Da Silva says. “The aim is to secure long-term relationships with the companies that come here. We’re confident we can do it.”

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