In the final weeks before making a decision about where to hold the booming Dublin-based Web Summit in 2016, cofounder Paddy Cosgrave was jetting to Portugal and the Netherlands to meet with top government officials.
But according to a trove of emails made public today by the Web Summit, Cosgrave was having trouble securing similar meetings with Dublin and Irish officials in his own backyard. Rather than asking for money or incentives, Cosgrave had spent years repeatedly asking officials to formulate some kind of plan to deal with logistical problems caused by the event’s massive size, such as traffic, hotel costs, and terrible Wi-Fi.
In just the past month, Cosgrave sent several emails pleading for some kind of proposal before the September 23 decision deadline about next year’s location. After only receiving a general outline for future talks at the last minute, Cosgrave announced that the event would move to Lisbon in 2016.
The decision to leave was not surprising, but still has caused some controversy in Ireland, placing heat on both Irish governments and summit organizers who were accused of leaving for money. According to the Web Summit, many of the emails released today would soon be public anyway as the result of a public records request by several Irish news organizations.
“In releasing this information openly, we want to be transparent about the reasons for moving Web Summit to Lisbon in 2016 and to place on record the issues in question,” Cosgrave wrote in a blog post. “We are doing this not to point the finger but to help everyone focus on the future.”
At the same time as the location controversy churns, the summit has had to respond to accusations that it uses misleading tactics to entice startups to pay to attend. In the middle of all this, the organizers are in the final stages of preparations for 30,000 people who expected to descend on Dublin the first week of November for Web Summit 2015.
The event was first held in 2010 with 400 attendees. But it grew so quickly that it has overwhelmed the city of Dublin. Last year, traffic ground to a halt, leaving attendees stranded in the rain. Hotel prices soared. And the Wi-Fi at the event’s center was a catastrophe, prompting Cosgrave to even complain about it on stage.
These problems had been brewing for a couple of years, and in the emails, Cosgrave makes clear that governments across Europe were wooing the summit aggressively. He insisted that he did not want Ireland to match those offers, but rather present a coordination plan to deal with the infrastructure issues.
He even offered free exhibition space to Irish government agencies and to increase the number of free tickets given to local students.
“I cannot stress enough that we don’t want a penny to stay, just a plan,” Cosgrave wrote on September 3 to an Irish official. “Far smaller cities than Dublin host far larger conferences than Web Summit. But it requires a coordinated plan for Dublin City that only Government can put in place. We know it’s possible. Even an indicative plan and we would stay. But after 3 years of asking and asking we still don’t have even one single page outlining even a basic committed plan for the city.”
He also continued to stress that the summit organizers needed a plan in place soon because work on the 2016 event was already underway.
On September 10, the prime minister’s private secretary, Nick Reddy, responded to Cosgrave that the government believed that good progress was being made on plans for this year. But it would also be better to wait until the 2015 event ended to have serious talks about 2016 so they could incorporate lessons learned this year.
The prime minister “is confident that a sensible and effective plan can be prepared for 2016 but it would seem wise that this Plan for 2016 be informed, to the greatest extent possible, by the preparation and delivery of arrangements for this year’s summit, particularly given the increased numbers travelling for the event this year,” Reddy wrote.
After an additional plea for a plan from Cosgrave, John Callinan, an assistant secretary general to the prime minister, forwarded a three-page “Framework for Engagement” for talks about 2016.
VentureBeat has reached out to Callinan and Reddy for comment, and will update with their responses.
A frustrated Cosgrave responded by email: “Again the above is not an indicative plan. It’s a plan to have an indicative plan. And represents no material change since we started this process all those years ago.”
Two days later, the Web Summit announced it was moving to Lisbon for the next three years.
Cosgrave, in his blog post, held out hope that his company, which now runs several tech conferences around the world, will consider launching other events in Ireland, where its 130-person headquarters will remain.
“We’re optimistic that, if we can work with the Irish Government and relevant authorities, we will grow many great conferences in Ireland over the coming years and so can others,” Cosgrave wrote. “We’re hoping this release starts a real debate about how to achieve a bright future for Ireland as a conference destination with all the benefits. We’re committed to launching conferences in Ireland in the future and we stand ready to help fix the issues in question.”