Web Summit’s Move to Portugal Dents Dublin’s Image as a Tech Hub

  • Event set to move to Lisbon after five years in Irish Capital
  • Gathering is the world's largest startup event each year

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After five years, Dublin and the Web Summit are breaking up.

The decision to move the world’s largest gathering of startups to Lisbon next year is a blow to Dublin’s efforts to portray itself as Europe’s Silicon Valley and has cast a pall over the event’s kickoff Tuesday, with the Web Summit and Irish government defending their positions. The back-and-forth escalated with event founder Paddy Cosgrave last month releasing a cache of e-mail correspondence.

Paddy Cosgrave

Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

The government’s "uncoordinated and disorganized approach" hampered the summit, which draws about 30,000 attendees and celebrities of the likes of Bono, event founder Cosgrave wrote in e-mails to the prime minister’s office. In turn, the government pointed to financial support given to the summit. Twitter posts showed public sympathy for Cosgrave ebbing after he released the event’s wish-list, which included police escorts for VIPs, free rental of iconic venues and the closure of some city center streets for a "night summit.”

‘Lavished Praise’

Today, Cosgrave renewed his attack on the government, saying Kenny’s administration was using the controversy as a “helpful distraction” from other problems.

“Publicly, we always lavished praise on the government,” Cosgrave said in an interview with state-broadcaster RTE. “Privately, we were constantly trying to get politicians to do what other governments were doing at the summit, focusing not on photo opportunities but opportunities to do business.”

The idea that the government hadn’t done enough to meet executives at the summit is "simply not the case," Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton told RTE after Cosgrave.

The summit, which started five years ago with 400 technology entrepreneurs, will draw more than 2,000 startups, 1,000 investors and 650 speakers to the three-day conference this year, organizers say. The sprawling event now encompasses pub crawls and food and sports summits. Last year, U2’s Bono and supermodel Lily Cole were among the star turns. Bloomberg employees are participating in and hosting some of this year’s events.

‘Commercial Decision’

For Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose government faces elections within months, there’s more at stake than the estimated $120 million the event generates for Dublin. The organizers’ complaints risk undermining Kenny’s narrative of competence in reviving an economy ravaged by the global financial crisis. In the aftermath of the e-mails’ release, the premier said the move was a “commercial decision” rather than one driven by a lack of government help.

“I spoke to Paddy myself when he was in Portugal, saying we would offer every assistance that we can,” Kenny told reporters last month. “It wasn’t the government writing a check but being very encouraging all along the line.”

Portugal’s capital, which will host the summit for at least three years, is providing 1.3 million euros ($1.4 million) of support a year to the event. Ireland has provided just under 1 million euros over the lifetime of the event.

For days after Cosgrave’s announcement that he was taking the event to Lisbon, the controversy dominated the letters pages of national newspapers, supporters and opponents traded barbs online and organizations such as the Dublin Chamber of Commerce called the loss of the summit a “wake-up call for a spend-shy government.”

“The Web summit is a global event, which has put Ireland center stage for the past four years,” said Dara Calleary, jobs and enterprise spokesman for Fianna Fail, the biggest opposition party. “Despite all this, the government couldn’t step up to the mark and secure its future in Ireland.”

Logistical Hurdles

The trouble may have started a year ago after the 2014 event was mired in logistical difficulties such as Wi-Fi outages and a lack of public transport or taxis around the event, prompting Cosgrave to send the government a series of e-mails requesting extra support.

“Leaving international attendees stranded with no hope of public transport or taxis caused incredible frustration, ” Cosgrave said in a Sept. 1 e-mail. The entrepreneur didn’t “want a penny,” he said. “We just want a plan for public transport, traffic flow management, Wi-Fi and hotels. Without even a basic plan, Web summit will be too big, too unmanageable, too risky for Dublin.”

Replying to his e-mails on Sept. 10, government officials chided him that there had been “extensive engagement” with the organizers, and reminded him of “good progress” on various issues.

They also pointed out that some of the issues raised by Cosgrave “are contractual matters between you and your venue and/or service providers.” The summit’s parent company made an operating profit of about 500,000 euros ($600,000) in 2013, and had 1.1 million euros of cash in the bank, according to the most recent available accounts.

On Sept. 23, a frustrated Cosgrave told the world that the event was leaving Dublin for Lisbon.

As for this year, one person who won’t attend is Kenny. The premier won’t attend, though he was a speaker last year, "given that the invitation to attend this year’s event was sent last Friday and the hectic nature of his schedule,” his office said in an e-mail, before wishing the organizer well. Cosgrave said Tuesday that the premier was invited in May. The government declined to comment.

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