Caveat Emptor: Upcoming Web Summit Lisbon has a history of wild growth, big controversies

This has been an incredible year so far for European tech summits, with Viva Technology Paris in France, and TNW Conference and Startup Fest Europe in Amsterdam bringing in Silicon Valley CEOs and top innovators.

The next international mega-event on the calendar is Web Summit Lisbon – the SXSW of Europe – coming up this fall. (Is it just us, or the more inviting the location, the bigger the event? Paris, Amsterdam and Lisbon. Oddly, not Liege or Minsk.)

Scheduled for 7 November through 10 November, Web Summit Lisbon might turn out to be the largest of them all. “No technology conference has ever grown so large so fast,” notes the Web Summit Lisbon website. But it’s fair to also say few tech events have generated as much controversy and criticism, either, mostly centered around what, if anything, Web Summit (or any of these gatherings) really do for the people they’re supposed to benefit … struggling startup entrepreneurs. Except, that is, relieve them of a chunk of their operating capital.

After starting in Dublin  in 2010, Web Summit is moving this year to Lisbon. Which – as you can imagine – caused a major brouhaha in Ireland. (More about that later.)

Like most tech events, Web Summit Lisbon is a series of seminars. This year, the 20 total summit topics include music, data, health tech, artificial intelligence, fintech, security, data and lots of others stuff. Web Summits also put startups in front of some of the world’s most influential people … for a steep price.

The least expensive ticket is 500 euros.

Here’s the full pricing chart:

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 4.09.09 AM

The big money generated has become an issue for Web Summit. and BusinessInsider looked at allegations that Web Summit is “a scam” (their words, not mine) after The Nordic Web blogger Neil Murray wrote the post “Why I’m not going to Web Summit – in Dublin, Lisbon or anywhere else.”

In it, Murray charged Web Summit had lost sight of delivering value to startups, which had become “an afterthought to the glitz and glamour, and the desire to make money.”

In its defense, Web Summit is an event with a pedigree.

Previous headline speakers included Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Reed Hastings, Pixar/Disney President Ed Catmull, Peter Theil and Bono.

Cisco Chairman John Chambers has made it, as has Dave Gilboa, a Warby Parker co-founder, and Pieter van der Does, co-founder of Adyen. (The Web Summit 2016 website has a photo of each of what seems like all 37,000 people who ever attended one of the things!)

Headliners haven’t been announced for this year, but we’re thinking the move to Lisbon will bring big names. One thing we do know is, Web Summit Lisbon is hoping to attract more women. The goal is to boost the percentage of female attendees to 50 percent from 30 percent in 2015, according to the Silicon Hills newsletter.

How big is this year’s event going to be? In April, 2015 1,317 attendees from 19 countries had booked tickets, according to the website. “A year later, and with 7 months to go, we’ve passed 27,000 attendees from 149 countries.”

Since its 2010 debut in Dublin, Web Summit has blown up, going from 400 locals the first year to tens of thousands last year. (Murray also charges attendance numbers are inflated, but who knows.) Organizers have added events in Hong Kong and Las Vegas.

This is a wildly successful event that, understandably, Ireland didn’t want to lose. And the defection to Lisbon again put organizers in the news, and not the happy, happy news. Irish officials accused founder Paddy Cosgrave of strong-arming government officials, trying to get monetary incentives to keep the summit in Ireland. In response, Cosgrave and other summit executives released emails detailing their correspondences with (mostly unresponsive) government officials about traffic glitches, hotels issues and wifi problems. After said government officials took weeks to even reply, Cosgrave bolted to Lisbon and took his Web Summit franchise with him.

Dispatches – like all the rest – is an underfunded, over-worked startup, and all this has us asking, “Do we spend thousands of dollars to attend these digital Woodstocks on the odd chance we’re going to get noticed?” It’s a serious cost-benefit analysis.

And the answer?

As our cynical American cousins might put it, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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