Saturday 24 August 2019

Does the Web Summit loss spell doom for Dublin - or does it mean a new start?

The Web Summit in Dublin.
The Web Summit in Dublin.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

With the departure of the Web Summit, Ireland has lost its biggest annual tech branding event. Will other events spring up to replace it? Will its loss affect Dublin's tech reputation in any meaningful way? And what are the chances that the Web Summit might actually return in three years when its Lisbon contract is up?

For those weary of spats over ministerial invitations and €20 burgers, here's a quick guide as to what might happen next.

Is there another conference to replace it next year?

At least two conference organisers - Business & Finance publisher Ian Hyland and newcomer Mic Wright - are said to be planning an event next year at this time. Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton has also said he hopes to see "successor" conferences to the Web Summit.

With respect to these, there's a slim chance that anything comparable to the Web Summit will emerge next year. The industry doesn't see a vacuum in the way that we might. For us, there's a 'Dublin conference' up for grabs next year. But for the predominantly US-based digital tech industry, it's business as usual next November in Lisbon.

So what about Dublin then?

At present, there are dozens of smaller tech conferences hosted in Ireland every year. Some, such as the Apple developer event Úll or in Waterford, are highly regarded within their sectors. But they are niche events with limited scale. Few attract more than two or three hundred participants. Fewer still attract any foreign media or major investor focus. If a "successor" to the Web Summit really is to emerge, it would need to rear its head very shortly.

Will the Web Summit come back?

It's an evens bet. Even in the midst of the recent email argy-bargy, Paddy Cosgrave told this newspaper that he intended to set up "other" conferences in Ireland over the next three years. "We're looking at a number of different areas," he said. One of these could be in health, a longstanding aspiration of his.

And despite accusations of burning bridges here, he has also maintained good relations with a number of figures in the trade agencies he is assumed to be fighting with.

And whatever about his complaints of minor league infrastructure afflicting the city, Dublin will always sync smoothly with the way he brands his events.

Will its departure hurt Dublin as a tech centre?

No-one seriously argues that multinational tech companies are about to up sticks and leave because the Web Summit is departing.

"There is such a concentration of tech companies and talent now in Ireland," said Sam Chandler, founder and chief executive of Nitro, a software company that employs 50 people in Dublin. "So the event being located elsewhere won't change that."

But losing the country's biggest tech branding event doesn't help, either.

"Web Summit's move to Portugal dents Dublin's image as a tech hub," said the Bloomberg global headline last week.

"The organisers' complaints risk undermining Kenny's narrative of competence in reviving an economy ravaged by the global financial crisis," it reported. The newswire went on to quote allegations from the Web Summit of an "uncoordinated and disorganised approach" to tech infrastructure from the Government. Earlier this year, Department of Foreign Affairs officials described the (then) potential move away as "extremely damaging to Ireland".

Where does the Web Summit sit compared to other tech conferences?

If size is your metric, it's still considerably smaller than the Consumer Electronics Show (Las Vegas, 170,000 visitors), IFA (Berlin, 240,000 visitors), or Mobile World Congress (Barcelona, 94,000 visitors), all of which your correspondent attends each year.

Financially, it's on a much smaller scale, too. For example, Samsung alone spends millions of euro on its stands at CES and IFA each year. There is nothing of that scale at the Web Summit. But those big events have been around for decades while the Web Summit is just five years old. Moreover, there is unquestionably a bigger emphasis on growth, investment and new business at the Web Summit than at events such as the suit-and-tie telecoms conference, Mobile World Congress.

What did the State get for its €700,000 anyway?

According to the Web Summit, trade agencies (IDA and Enterprise Ireland) actually spent €842,000 with the Web Summit over the span of its existence. This, they say, was largely through the sale of stands and sponsored events: invoiced actions that were indistinguishable from similar invoices sent to big companies or other countries' trade agencies. Cosgrave appeared to argue that one agency - Enterprise Ireland - wasted its money by not matching the efforts of rival agencies. (Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton refuted this.) But it's hard to argue that the IDA didn't derive value from the event.

This year, I saw its chief executive, Martin Shanahan, flitting about between dozens of influential American web executives at the event. He was on hand, for example, to see Michael Dell off from his centre stage talk.

The IDA spends a considerable amount of money in marketing costs all over the world. The Web Summit was one of its signature annual events.

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