Web Summit tech conference planned for December — both online, offline

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Paddy Cosgrave, CEO and founder of Web Summit, speaking on stage during the opening night of Web Summit 2019 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.

Sam Barnes | Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

The annual tech conference Web Summit is set to go ahead in Lisbon, Portugal, from December 2-4, its organizers have said.

The event is one of Europe’s largest technology gatherings — surpassed in size only by Mobile World Congress, which was canceled earlier this year — and there have been doubts about whether to run it due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Web Summit, which is also the name of the company behind the conference, said in a statement Wednesday that it was forging ahead with plans to hold it in December. But the format will be different this time.

Web Summit will host up to 100,000 participants on an online platform the company developed to host its Collision tech conference, which is usually held physically in Toronto, Canada. The rebranded “Collision from Home” event attracted more than 30,000 attendees this week, Web Summit said.

“We have been building software that enables connections at events for over half a decade so we could pivot quite naturally online,” Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit’s co-founder and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday.

A Web Summit spokesperson said the firm also plans to sell its online events software to other conference organizers. Virtual events have proven to be a buzzy business with investors pumping millions of dollars into the space as big gatherings have been made impossible due to the health crisis.

“Our platform will hopefully enable people from all over the world to make the same meaningful and valuable connections that are somewhat similar to the real world,” Cosgrave added.

Wait-and-see mode

However, Web Summit is still waiting to see whether it can open to an audience physically at the Altice Arena venue in the Portuguese capital. That decision will be taken in October, based on talks with local health officials.

Portugal has a relatively low coronavirus death toll of 1,540 and 39,737 confirmed cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and has won praise for how it’s dealt with the outbreak. The country has been far less affected than neighboring Spain, which has seen 28,325 deaths and 246,752 infections.

But there are fears of a spike in Portuguese cases following a wave of illegal parties that were held after the government relaxed its lockdown restrictions. Lisbon on Tuesday cracked down on public life to curb a further spread of Covid-19 cases, imposing an 8 p.m. curfew on some nightlife.

Web Summit hosted more than 70,000 people at its 2019 event. The conference has hosted big-name speakers in the past including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Cosgrave’s announcement earlier this month that Web Summit would happen in November immediately drew a backlash on social media, with some calling it irresponsible.

“Terrible idea,” Ben Song, managing director of Australian start-up SquareAlpha, told CNBC via Twitter in response to Cosgrave’s statement.

Dina Mostovaya, a Russia-based communications consultant, said she thought it was the “wrong” move but that she would consider going if Web Summit enforced “strict rules” on wearing face masks and maintaining physical distance.

For its part, Web Summit said it would “strictly adhere” to Portuguese health advice. The plan was originally to hold the event in November, but this appears to have been pushed back.

Tickets for the online event are now on sale, Web Summit said, while tickets for the offline one will be sold in early October, provided Portuguese officials give it the nod to go ahead.

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