Sunday 25 August 2019

From Paddy's bash to Paddy bashing - why did it all go wrong for Web Summit?

Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave leaves the stage on the last day of the event at the RDS this week
Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave leaves the stage on the last day of the event at the RDS this week
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured after he rang the opening bell for the NASDAQ at 1.30pm at the Dublin Web Summit in the RDS in 2013

Mandy Johnston

Paddy likes to know what's going on.

Enda Kenny's famous post-election quip, which caricatured us as a nation of mildly curious simpletons began the back-slapping, high-fiving, finger-pointing phase for this Taoiseach. Little did our Taoiseach know that four years later, one particular Paddy would cause him such heartache.

Paddy Cosgrave, co-founder of the Web Summit, is sounding off about event management and getting out of Dublin.

Offered a reputed €1 million by the Portuguese government to relocate, Paddy's bags are packed and his conference is in the departure lounge.

Bon voyage, says the Government, don't let the door hit you on the arse on your way out. A shambolic end to what should have been a positive experience for the organisers and a showcase for the way Ireland does business.

Custody battle lost, combat began over the airwaves for hearts and minds. Neither the Government nor event organisers covered themselves in glory. Valiantly, the Web Summit itself trundled on in the background like the unfortunate child in Kramer versus Kramer.

Torn between two people who used to love each other, now the relationship has broken down beyond repair; all that is left are bitter words and recriminations, without a high-five in sight.

As if taking a leaf out of the Julian Assange playbook, Cosgrave tweeted the dossier of documents leading up to the break-up.

They amounted to a perfectly reasonable attempt by the Taoiseach's staff to say we will do what we can and get back to you. But it was too late, he was not getting enough "love" and Paddy flung his rattle far from his pram.

The first-world problem of a few thousand computer geeks stuck in Dublin traffic while suffering "costly" hotel prices is hardly a solid message to evoke sympathy, but this didn't prevent Paddy from taking to the airwaves.

Out in RTÉ, he castigated the Government's lack of engagement as a travesty for the Irish tech and tourism industries.

A mile down the road in Ballsbridge, some 10,000 delegates queued in the November sunshine with their laptops for over an hour just to get inside.

Claims that relocation is about Government engagement felt a bit hollow. Once inside the venue, something else became obvious.

The RDS is no longer a suitably sized venue for an event of this magnitude. For those mere mortals who haven't experienced life inside the Web Summit bubble, allow me to elucidate.

I had hoped that by merely attending I might be catapulted into some new-age digital mind space through sheer proximity to such bastions of the cyber world.

Let's just say that the set-up is not exactly conducive to blue-sky thinking. Inside the RDS, the pace is frenetic. It is like some Red Bull-infused, cyber-speed-dating extravaganza.

Three days of it could leave participants feeling a little unloved - and at €700 for a three-day ticket and €5,000 for a start-up exhibition space - short changed.

Everyone was dressed like they were going through an airport.

Everyone had a crossover bag (leaving one hand free for coffee and the other free for a mobile device). Everyone was scrolling on their mobile phone - always. Everyone was going somewhere. Everyone had a beard. Everyone was under 35. Anyone over 50 stuck out, badly. Not to the extent of pointing, but over 50s were noticeable all the same.

I took out a pen and notebook for one of the sessions but quickly stuffed it back in my bag because I think I heard an audible gasp at the sight of real paper. The positivity was palpable.

I wondered if any productivity was actually happening.

The main set pieces are held in "mini-summits" spread over the complex.

These are a series of impressive, non-stop, moderated discussions on different topics every 20 minutes.

Back to back with big names that moved with speed and ease through their discussions.

Everything was on time and on track.

The size of the footprint of the venue meant that getting from one location to another was, at times, difficult.

Do not be fooled, this is not merely a tech convention. Interesting international speakers on communications, media marketing services, sports technology and social media were in plentiful supply.

The summit is growing and the RDS would simply not cope if there was further expansion.

This may be the root of the problem - rather than the traffic calming measures outside.

Irish Independent

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