The FIL area’s expansion has been agreed upon since 2018, but never came to pass due to disagreements between the municipality and AIP. The CEO of Web Summit hopes it will happen next year, as agreed.
In addition to an annual payment of €11 million, one of the commitments made by the Portuguese state and the municipality of Lisbon to Paddy Cosgrave’s company was to double FIL’s exhibition space by 2022. The issue is of great importance for the Web Summit, as the growth of the area will allow it to have more exhibition space and attendees, therefore bringing in much more revenue.
The original date for the expansion was October 2021, but the lack of agreement with the AIP Foundation (owner of FIL) did not allow it to take place. The municipality of Lisbon made an adenda to the contracted adding another year. Now the CEO of Web Summit hopes the commitment will be honoured. “I haven’t been informed otherwise,” he guarantees in an interview with ECO.
Demand is not a problem, the co-founder assures. “The event could easily have 100,000 attendees and two to three times as much exhibition space.” Even because “Lisbon is the hottest city at the moment”. This year, with the restrictions by the Directorate-General of Health (DGS), the conference will only receive 40,000 visitors.
Paddy Cosgrave also praises the success of the vaccination process in Portugal. The number of registrations was growing, above all because “Portugal was on the front page of every newspaper in the world for being the country with the highest vaccination rate. All that free marketing by Portugal has helped bring Web Summit back much faster.”
Last year you said you were expecting 70.000 visitors in 2021. The number will only be 40.000. Pandemic effect or…
In 2019 we had 70,000 attendees. Initially, we communicated to the government that our conservative expectation was about 10,000 people, then we upgraded to 15,000, then 20,000. With the very sensible restrictions that are in place, the maximum capacity for the venue is 40,000 people, and we will not go above that number.
If it weren’t for the pandemic restrictions, would the numbers be even higher? Does the event in Lisbon still have that attractiveness?
We have a responsibility to the DGS and the World Health Organization (WHO), who have looked at our protocols. The design of the event aims to meet very sensible protocols set by experts. I am not going to contradict scientists.
Could the venue have 60,000 to 70,000 attendees? Did it have the demand to reach those numbers?
WS could have 100,000 attendees. At Collision in Toronto, we sold more exhibition space in the first year than in Lisbon in 2019. The only restriction in the case of Lisbon is the size of the venue. In 2021, there are additional restrictions that have to do with circulation, density, social distance. The event could easily have 100,000 people and two to three times more exhibition space if it wasn’t for the restrictions.
Are you still expecting the exhibition space of FIL to double in 2022? Have you had any indication from FIL or the Portuguese government regarding this expansion?
I haven’t been informed otherwise. After the WS we will start discussing the next few years, I look forward to doing that. At the moment it’s our Champions League final, which takes place next week. That’s the only thing I can think about. Then we start discussing next season at the end of November, December.
In your plans for “next season,” you mentioned the will to expand WS with events beyond Lisbon. Are they still in place?
In 2022, we’ll be doing additional events. This year we’re doing CIS (Corporate Innovation Summit) and venture – two events that take place on Sunday and Monday before the WS kicks off. In 2022, we will add others. Where are we going to do that? From a logistical point of view, it is physically simpler and more appealing for participants coming from all over the world if everything is held in Lisbon or the surrounding area. We’ve looked at doing stuff in Coimbra, Porto, Azores, Madeira, Faro, but the issue is always the attendees’ willingness to travel twice because many of them are travelled from halfway across the world. We will do additional events, whether we will do them in additional cities or locations is still open. I think we will be doing additional events, but whether we do them in additional cities or locations, that’s up for debate. My slight sense is we will do it around the Lisbon region.
The Beato Creative Hub (HBC) could be one of the venues to host events? As you know it is still under construction.
The biggest challenge will be the venues. We use so many spaces by day, and by night. The WS doesn’t just happen in FIL, the Altice Arena or the Expo area, it happens all over the city and it’s expanding. Then there are third party events, every night there are literally hundreds of events happening all over the city in restaurants, bars, theatres… There is a natural limit for the city, there’s not enough space. If HCB is available we will gobble it up, we love using any cool space, we have no objections whatsoever.
Can you specify which events you want to launch in 2022?
One of them is the Gathering. We host an event after WS called Founders, which brings together founders of 150 unicorns and quasi-unicorn companies from Tuesday night to Sunday morning. Gathering will be held from Saturday night until Monday afternoon, and brings 150 or 200 founders from the most interesting early-stage companies in the world, mainly Series A companies. In addition, we want to organise a series of gathers for C-level executives who come to WS but are not necessarily speakers. Increasingly, blue-chip companies and large techs often use WS as an offsite. I think there is an opportunity to bring together the CEOs of 200 of the most interesting tech companies in the world, who can learn together, be together for two days, compare notes, and repeat that for the CMO and CTO.
That number [of attendees] has been growing, especially as Portugal has been on the front page of every newspaper in the world for being the country with the highest vaccination rate. Many other countries, especially the larger Western countries, didn’t expect Portugal to do this any better than they did. The Germans and the French had a hard time with their vaccination programme. All that free marketing by Portugal has helped bring Web Summit back much faster.
Back to the exhibition space. The initial expectation was that Web Summit could go up to 70,000 attendees. But the pandemic and restrictions limited that number.
In a normal year. Our expectations in June, and we communicated this to the government, were that we would have 10,000 people. That number has been growing, especially as Portugal has been on the front page of every newspaper in the world for being the country with the highest vaccination rate. Many other countries, especially the larger Western countries, didn’t expect Portugal to do this any better than they did. The Germans and the French had a hard time with their vaccination programme. All that free marketing by Portugal has helped bring Web Summit back much faster.
Did the lower attendance have any impact on the number of companies that paid to be at Web Summit?
Exhibition space sold out earlier than in 2019, still in September.
At the same prices?
It was the same price. And it sold out four weeks earlier than in 2019. We have the same exhibition space, what we don’t have is the big tent that we had, because the air circulation is not enough. We have less, especially, for the second biggest stage, Pandaconf.
Having the former European Commissioner for Innovation as a mayor is good in any city.
Have you spoken with the new president of the CML, Carlos Moedas?
I know Carlos Moedas very well.
But in a different position, he was a European Commissioner.
We’ve been in contact with each other and I’m, I’m spending time with him this Wednesday.
What do you have to say to him? What are your concerns?
For this year, we have no concerns. We work very closely with the Ministry of Health, the DGS and the WHO. Don’t believe everything you see on social media, I think they are actually very good. Everyone in the world realised that the Portuguese were able to organise themselves and solve the pandemic.
You said you didn’t expect anything to change with the appointment of the new mayor. But do you have any idea what Carlos Moedas’ expectations will be regarding the Web Summit?
I’m not putting words in his mouth. I hope to find out this Wednesday. I’ve met him about 40 times in the last five years. I have spoken to him many more. He’s very competent, very ambitious, and really understands tech. Having the former European Commissioner for Innovation as a mayor is good in any city.
When we arrived five years ago, I thought Lisbon would have a moment, a lot of press didn’t believe it, but Lisbon is on fire, it is the hottest European city at the moment
During the municipal campaign, Moedas said he wanted to create a “unicorn factory” in Lisbon. Is this the right way to elevate the Portuguese startup ecosystem to unicorn status?
Portugal has been incredibly successful, it has a high number of unicorns per capita. An ecosystem that started to develop later than in other European countries. When we arrived five years ago, I thought Lisbon would have a moment, a lot of press didn’t believe it, but Lisbon is on fire, it is the hottest European city at the moment. That brings many opportunities but also many challenges. Regarding unicorns, from my point of view, it is fantastic to have unicorns because they are great examples and can serve as inspiration, however, if you look at the German economy, its backbone is small and medium-sized enterprises.
You also have to invest in small and medium-sized enterprises.
The only thing better than 10 unicorns are 100 companies worth 100 million. And better than that is 1,000 companies of 10 million. I understand that for politicians and journalists it is easier to write about the successful company, the Farfetch or the Defined Crowd of this world, but in fact the economy is sustained by small and medium enterprises. And many of those companies are emerging. The Road 2 Web Summit [programme with Startup Portugal] is an event we’ve been doing for several years and a number of things have changed.
What changes do you see in the Portuguese ecosystem?
Three or four years ago it was pretty much all-male entrepreneurs. Now there’s massive amount of female participation. And all the entrepreneurs are not from Portugal, either. They’re from countries all over the world. And they’ve decided, Portugal is a place to build a company. You go back three years, and none of those early-stage companies have had funding, there wasn’t a vibrant ecosystem for funding Portuguese startups. There were a small number of venture capitalists in Portugal, and Portuguese companies were struggling to raise capital internationally, that’s completely changed. Portugal has a very strong and growing kind of track record, the number of companies on Road 2 to WS already with funding of 5, 10 or 20 million is a massive difference.
I think unicorns are incredibly important but equally important is what is actually happening at the lower level. And I’m not contradicting Carlos Moedas, because I know he agrees with this. You need a thousand €10 million companies employing 50 people and one hundred companies worth €100 million employing 200 or 300 people. That creates much more long term vibrancy.
He says that for many of the companies on Road 2 WS Portugal is the country that generates the most interest….
To build a company. It is very different from the situation in Ireland, where large companies decide to set up their call centre there. You shouldn’t say no to those jobs, but they’re categorically different from the CTO and or the CEO, moving to a country and saying ‘this is where we are going to be based’. It’s materially different and has a cumulative impact on the strength of the ecosystem as a whole.
Portugal dropped five places, to 17th place, in The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021…
The report is based on data that’s now four years old. I saw it on Twitter and initially, my reaction was ‘this is terrible’, but that’s a 2018 report based on 2017 data, which in startup years is like the last century.