The worn, smooth cobbles and rustic architecture of Lisbon’s streets were certainly an excellent backdrop for this year’s Web Summit: a contrast of old vs new; shining chrome structures and American accents somehow harmonising with flagstones and the soft, lilting Portuguese dialect. The Altice Arena, which hosted the event, erupted from the centre of a more modernised area of the city. If you haven’t visited this Summit in Lisbon before, you would never suspect that an event like this was hidden in amongst the meandering streets.
I was looking forward to getting to the event on its official opening day. After the first day that I spent inside watching the build of the stages, and among the glitzy promise of the Opening Night, sadly my first true ‘attendee’ experience of the event was in queuing for over an hour in the beating sun to get in through the one entrance to the arena. It seemed that all 59,500 attendees had arrived at once.
Not a great start.
There are always going to be queues in an event of this scale, but having just one bottle-necked entrance felt ludicrous. Despite this, the crowd remained surprisingly upbeat, with people taking the opportunity to talk openly to the people around them in the queue. I saw more than one set of business cards being exchanged before we could even see the doors.
From a logistics point of view, there was also a complete difference in security checks dependent on what section of the entrance you ended up going through – some people were scanned through metal detectors, others weren’t. Some had their bags searched, had to remove coats and shoes – I just had to open mine and I was waved through – not comforting for an event that is hosting so many people packed in together.
However, after finally making it inside, it was great to see the ‘finished product’: the event halls were made up of far more ambitious shells and stands than I have seen at many events. The ‘Instagram effect’ in particular was really coming into its own. Mercedes-Benz, for example, had constructed an entire two-storey hub, designed to host workshops for start-ups at the event; Google had built a giant doll’s house of sorts to house their own mini-workshops. It’s clear that companies were happy to be investing money into this show, and it only takes one look at the exhibitor list to recognise that some of the world’s biggest brands were in attendance.
There was plenty going on, with each hall hosting at least two stages of talks alongside the hundreds of stands. It was like sensory overload: there was music erupting from everywhere – in one of the halls there was even a Radio station, complete with hosts talking live about the event. The Summit’s signature dubstep and purple-hued lighting permeated throughout. It felt more like a crowded bar than a tech event.
Undoubtedly, there were some gems within the Summit. The Women in Tech lounge provided some much-needed breathing space away from the pace of the bustling halls – and there were phone charging ports – hurrah! There were also plenty of interactive features built into the event, such as a gif-recording camera, and an AI machine that could tell you about your personality by answering 5 simple questions.
After spending the majority of my time in the main arena, The Forum was a different world entirely. An invite-only section of the show, the atmosphere was poles apart: no purple lights, no dubstep. The first thing that I noticed when arriving was that there was so much seating compared to the rest of the event. The entire room was set up to be inviting. There, the conversations I had with people were much more relaxed, as things are when happening over a glass of wine on a comfy seat. The room was mood-lit, and people were walking up to each other and connecting, rather than meeting in a shower of business cards with an agenda ready to push.
Overall, it was like two separate events. Perhaps Cosgrave and his team were also mindful that their ‘VIPs’ would need a safe haven. I spoke to two of them, who both shared the same message: ‘I honestly haven’t left the forum to attend the rest of the event’. It’s a shame, really, that aside from a few exceptions, these ‘tech Gods’ didn’t socialise with the attendees who had spent hundreds – if not thousands – on attending the event. I would like to note at this point, that my entry into the Forum was yet another security gaffe, and I was not an invitee – not that I’m complaining.
The quality of the talks in The Forum were also better for the majority. The fact that this was a closed-off room, with much less ambient noise was a big benefit – the Centre Stage in comparison, was too grand, the room was cold, noisy, and the camera, which projected speakers live onto the big screen, was pitched at a height where you could see people walking back and forth, impeding the view, and distracting from the talk. There was also much more exclusive, informative content being shared during the Forum sessions, compared to the underwhelming ‘Google-able’ info elsewhere.
All-in-all, I felt a bit hollow leaving the Summit. My attendance revolved around the talks, and I just didn’t get what I came for, outside my time spent in The Forum. I would argue that it wasn’t a tech conference at all, but a mash of questionably-web-related names – Wyclef Jean and Triple H, anyone?
I think much of the event experience would depend on what you were looking to get out of attending. If you were looking to listen to talks, see some thought-leading speakers, and find the opportunity to meet these people, this event was lacking – unless you were part of the very exclusive VIPs invited to The Forum. If you were there as a start-up, looking for investment, there were certainly investors at the event, looking for new opportunities. If you were looking for press, you had a chance – if you already have a name for yourself, that is. And, if you were looking for something to flesh out your Instagram feed, you got it.