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Web Summit opens for first post-Covid gathering

Apple executive Craig Federighi among keynote speakers in Lisbon


Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave

Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave

Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave

He bounced onto the stage like a man who had added an espresso shot to a can of Red Bull.

Paddy Cosgrave seemed nervous but ebullient. After almost two years of Covid, an event his company had told investors could prove “catastrophic”, his Web Summit was back in a sold-out Lisbon conference centre.

Even if the capacity was down to little more than half of what it welcomed through its doors in 2019, it was plain there was a buzz in the Altice Arena.

It was also clear that a chunk of the Irish tech ecosystem had migrated to the Portuguese capital for the event. From ‘interface’ specialists such as former RTÉ anchorman Mark Little to the Manna Aero drone king, Bobby Healy, to seasoned investors such as Brian Caulfield, many of the country’s most recognisable tech industry figures have thought it worthwhile to turn up this year.

A small army of young Irish start-ups, crypto wannabes, tech hopefuls and marketers also filled the flights that came from Dublin to Lisbon over the last three days. Mr Cosgrave yesterday said more Irish people attend the Web Summit in Lisbon than when it was held in Dublin, although that might be a function of its much larger capacity in the Portuguese capital.

The opening night headline speaker was the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who has been on a tour of legislatures and congregations for the last three weeks.

Other big names to speak this week include internet creator Tim Berners-Lee, Microsoft president Brad Smith and Hollywood actress Amy Poehler.

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The real headline speaker, however,  is Apple’s Craig Federighi, the tech giant’s second most senior executive, after Tim Cook.

Apple is famous for not turning up to others’ conferences. While it will almost certainly have put strict conditions on the Web Summit’s promotion of Mr Federighi as a headliner, and while this would go against every core marketing instinct the Web Summit has, the pay-off for Mr Cosgrave’s conference could be invaluable: a longer term relationship with Apple that yields further high-ranking executives at the Web Summit.

Mr Cosgrave knows this would elevate the Web Summit’s brand internationally and would open the door to a level of keynote speaker previously not attained by the Web Summit – the CEOs of Intel, Google or Microsoft, for example, who have always sent deputies or marketing executives.

The highest profile speaker previously landed by the Web Summit has been Elon Musk, but that was long before he was the world’s richest man or Tesla or SpaceX had become successful car companies.

For most attendees, the real draw of the Web Summit is the ground-level networking that comes from it. This will be most concentrated at an invitation-only gathering called Founders. This is where Mr Cosgrave’s team do what they do best – bring together relatively powerful people to create a rare networking effect.

While the world talks about Zoom meetings and hybrid work models, 40,000 people turning up in Lisbon for face-to-face meetings may yet have an effect on conferences.

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