Monday 23 September 2019

Web Summit woes won't see big events rushing to our door

Debacle means Dublin has lost a lot more than the opportunity to host 30,000 attendees

Grievances: Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave took the Government to task on several matters
Grievances: Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave took the Government to task on several matters
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

If journalism has taught me anything, it is that there are at least two sides to every story.

More often than not, there are more than two sides, making the task of ascertaining "the truth" a sometimes tricky one.

And even when you make a call on the best version of the truth based on the evidence and credibility of witnesses, on the balance of probabilities (beyond a reasonable doubt, if you're criminally minded) the truth - much like beauty - ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder.

So, who was right or wronged in the great debacle that saw the Web Summit depart Dublin for its new home in Lisbon next year?

And why does Ireland Inc handle some major public events, the Garth Brooks fiasco included, with all the panache and emotional intelligence of the great Irish family bust-up at Christmas?

I attended my first Web Summit this year, as a speaker, as I conducted a fireside chat with Kevin O'Malley, the US ambassador to Ireland. The former trial lawyer has converted Dearborn (the ambassador's residence in Phoenix Park) into a stunning culture and innovation salon courtesy of his Creative Minds Series - the topic of our fireside chat.

My limited exposure to the Web Summit, its relentless email and emotionally manipulative marketing strategy aside, was superb.

The atmosphere at the RDS was electric, if frenetic and slightly cultish: the coveted "speaker" badge had many attendees looking obsessively at my chest for clues as to my non-existent investor/tech credentials.

The level of planning prior to the event and its execution on the day, right down to the infectious enthusiasm of hordes of young summit volunteers, was flawless.

I dodged that €20 burger and soaked up the hipster vibes and free water for speakers instead.

The wifi was iffy and the road traffic was crazy, but given the sheer numbers and the well-documented difficulties of the Web Summit and the RDS to resolve their wifi differences, I was expecting the event to be somewhat broadband challenged.

And, as someone who lives in the shadow of the Aviva stadium, the traffic chaos at Ballsbridge is something I've become accustomed to.

The success of the Web Summit, which grew from 400 attendees to more than 30,000 in five years, is beyond dispute.

It began as a small Irish start-up that went from a sofa to a global events phenomenon with 140 staff in a very short period.

The success of the Web Summit has also been great for Ireland Inc.

It has helped to showcase all that we have to offer, including "the craic", which cannot be quantified in euros or dollars - it is, by and large, priceless.

It has also helped to shore up Ireland's claims to be a great destination for all things tech and for foreign direct investment, especially of the American kind.

And then, like the not untypical Irish Christmas, we had a bust-up before the proverbial helping of sherry trifle was even served.

The online and broadcast rants (no other word for them) against the Government by Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave grated with even the most passionate of its devotees.

At best, Mr Cosgrave's outbursts - he described financial support from state bodies, for example, as "hush money" - could be passed off as the type one has when tired, emotional or deeply frustrated.

They certainly contrast with his initial tone in the correspondence, which he released, between himself and the Department of the Taoiseach about planning for the 2016 fair that has now decamped to Lisbon.

How unreasonable, if at all, were the Web Summit's demands?

It said there were four areas it needed the Government to engage in, including the type of traffic plans for rugby and soccer events as well as the RDS Horse show.

It wanted increased public transport to and from the RDS for those attending.

It wanted the Government to engage with the hotel sector to initiate an anti-price gouging strategy, and it wanted the Government to intervene to stop the RDS, as the Web Summit saw it, "blocking" a simple wifi solution.

Then, as the pressures and the "new asks" - including road closures, complementary use of state venues and access to garda escorts for specific VIPs - increased, the conversation became less convivial.

What is staggering from the correspondence, even allowing for Mr Cosgrave's admonitions - one sentence berated the Government for being "beaten in its own back yard" by the British - is the seeming lack of urgency or engagement from the Government.

The Government did outline what supports it had already committed for 2015, but its engagement for 2016 - a draft framework - was utterly weak.

This in a country where politicians called for direct intervention by the Taoiseach and emergency laws to allow Garth Brooks to sing for five nights in Croke Park.

We were right, in my view, not to indulge Mr Brooks.

But it seems to me that we either want major events or we don't.

There must be serious political engagement if we are to avoid giving away the competitive advantages and kudos to others.

Not only have we sent a signal that we are not a great small country in which to host big business, we've also told the world that we're squabblers who cannot even make our way through Christmas Day.

Sunday Independent

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