Two weeks ago, Paddy Cosgrave, the founder and CEO of the Web Summit, opened proceedings on the main stage with an anecdote intended to define the essence of the event. One year previously, at last year’s Night Summit, Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, got together with investor Shervin Peshawar over a pint at Bruxelles pub on Harry Street. Before long they were back at the Shelbourne, signing a payment agreement. This was how Uber got to where it is today. This anecdote was largely accurate and it was no doubt this sense of possibility was what drew some to volunteer at the event. The Summit probably did represent an opportunity for someone to do something advancing. As Cosgrave would have it, the Web Summit provides attendees, and perhaps even volunteers, with the chance to move into ever more rarefied spheres of influence.
Many of the volunteers who offered testimony for this article rated the experience as worthwhile. They cited a strong group spirit among the volunteers, a diverse and interesting range of speakers and opportunities to network, with industry professionals as well as liked minded volunteers, as positive reasons to volunteer. One volunteer from the response team viewed volunteering as “an opportunity to work with volunteers from a range of different backgrounds and experiencing the Web Summit from a different perspectives than that of normal attendees.” The atmosphere at the Summit was quite captivating with a wide array of exhibitors pitching up daily.
The co-ordinators of the volunteer program were described as enthusiastic and engaging by those who came into contact with them and they were similarly positive in their feedback: “Volunteers travelled from near and far to give up their free time to make this event a success, in which they did! Reports from media, attendees, exhibitors, staff and external stakeholders was how supportive, efficient and friendly all volunteers were to make the event a more enjoyable one.”
However, it seemed that a lot of the positive feedback came in spite of an underlying sense of disorganisation with qualifying statements such as “I didn’t have that much of an issue with it” or “I overlooked it at the time because I was at the Web Summit” recurring frequently in the testimony of the volunteers interviewed for this piece.
The degree to which volunteers were willing to overlook the dissatisfying experiences they had while on duty varied. Many found that their roles weren’t sufficiently defined which led to confusion. “There wasn’t a proper manager as a team leader, just another clueless volunteer,” stated one volunteer who worked on Information Desk 1 at the entrance to the RDS. There seemed to be no clarification as to what those on the information desks in particular were meant to be doing, a problem originating in a lack of informed leadership: ” We all arrived on the morning of the first day and essentially milled around waiting for someone to tell us what to do. After about 20 minutes people started manning the desk, because this was the main entrance and people were starting to flood in, we spent the first morning basically making it up as we went along, having had no detailed briefing as to where things were and what was happening where.”
Another interviewee who was a part of the startups team stated his role was similarly ill defined and was apparently indistinguishable from those of members of other teams. He also identified the lack of trained team leader as problematic: “I began to feel that the team leaders were more of a metaphysical concept as the person giving me direction confessed they were completely at a loss. I began to receive text messages as five different team leaders claimed me and offered me lunch vouchers.”
Other volunteers felt ill-equipped to deal with significant administrative issues that arose. “There was a problem with food vouchers too. Some attendees didn’t receive them and couldn’t get food without them. We told the leaders but nothing was done about it all day so we had to explain to a couple of hundred hungry people that they’d have to trek back over to the registration office to see if they could sort it out,” a volunteer from the Food Summit said. (This issue was later addressed in an email from the staff.)
Many volunteers felt their situations were complicated by the fact that the things that would have allowed them to perform more effectively were lacking. “A lot more could have been done with the app, and even basic things like having the correct schedule of daily speakers and a list of exhibitors for the attendees,” related a volunteer from Information Desk 2, who found the Summit good overall despite some stressful moments. Back at Information Desk 1, things followed an increasingly formulaic pattern as a result. “We spent all of our time fielding three questions: ‘Where is the Wifi?’ Apologies, it isn’t working at the moment. ‘Can I have a map?’ Apologies, we have currently run out. ‘Can I have a list of attendees?’ Erm, no. There isn’t one. You might be able to find it online, but there isn’t any Wifi.”
There were those who took a more freelance approach to their work, taking queries as they came and doing what they could. “I had some success on the Wednesday morning, getting screwdrivers and stuff from the production office so people could repair their stalls.” stated one volunteer who was assigned to the Marketing Summit. “There were a few stalls that couldn’t get their Ethernet working, so I went to the info desk and then the staff tent outside where I was redirected somewhere else. There seemed to be confusion over who should radio the relevant person.” Another volunteer, who had previously volunteered at the Cork Film Festival among other events, compared these experiences with ushering on the Marketing stage: “The stage was large and we struggled to handle the numbers as people moved in and out… As a volunteer, it’s normal to be improvising but at an event this size things can become very difficult for us and those attending.”
Many of our interviewees felt the disorganisation was either due to or symptomatic of a greater problem. “The friendliest people in a position of authority were the security guards. The staff were very dismissive,” said a volunteer from the media area, who also found it upsetting that master’s students had come from as Germany and Finland to volunteer in what was, in her opinion, an unchallenging atmosphere. The interviewee from the startups team put the high number of travelling volunteers down to the “inflated rhetoric” surrounding the event and questioned the significance of the Web Summit itself. “I find the whole notion of solutionism surrounding the tech industry at the moment, whereby entrepreneurial spirit and the supposedly chronic need to invest in it is overemphasised, to be quite hollow,” he added. “In general, people are not encouraged to be realistic in their expectations. I met one startup (Rently) who had attracted investors due to the quality of their product. However, they were very much in a minority as many talented people were overlooked.”
The event has expanded from 400 attendees at the inaugural event in 2010 to 22,000 this year with attendee and volunteer numbers doubling since last year. The Web Summit caters to a culture focused on creating apps dedicated to streamlining every aspect of our daily lives. That such an event is lacking in certain fundamental areas suggests it is expanding in an artificial way. That being said, those involved are aware as to the shortcomings of this year’s event. The volunteer co-ordinators acknowledged the main issues arising in our testimony as “clarity of roles, communication and direction”, thanked Trinity students for their contribution to the event and stated they “will take all constructive feedback on board to ensure that Web Summit 2015 is bigger & better.” It is possible that, outside the circularity of the media glare and entrepreneurial rhetoric the event currently exists within, the Web Summit could flourish into an event as stimulating as parts of this year’s installment were.
There was speculation amongst our interviewees as to how the event would progress over the coming years, with some suggesting it will be sold on. In its present incarnation, however, there seems to be room for improvement. “If those at the very top, organising the event, don’t value the volunteers enough to direct them properly, ultimately, the work (the volunteers) do will be valueless,” concluded the startups team interviewee. While this may seem like harsh criticism, it is, at the very least, constructive.