Amid Web Summit CEO Resignation, Trade Show in Portugal Will Open as Planned in November

October 30, 2023

Weeks before Web Summit is set to welcome 70,000 attendees to Portugal, the event’s founder and CEO Paddy Cosgrave resigned on Oct. 21 amid backlash for his social media posts suggesting Israel was committing war crimes. A number of major exhibiting companies — including Intel, Meta, Google and Siemens — pulled out of the trade show, even after Cosgrave released a blog post denouncing the Hamas attacks and apologizing for his personal tweets that triggered the firestorm. 

The company, which also produces Collision Conference in North America, will appoint a new CEO, and Web Summit will go ahead next month in Lisbon as planned, according to Web Summit officials. 

Last year’s Web Summit drew 71,033 attendees, 1,050 speakers, 2,000 media, 2,296 startups and 342 partners to Lisbon, according to a post-show press release. The sold-out show floor covered 204,386 square meters (2.1 million square feet).

The tech conference attracts celebrity speakers, industry titans, government officials, global media and more. Among the A-listers on the 2023 agenda: President Kuo Zhang; DJ Marshmello; Canva Co-Founder Cameron Adams; Portugal President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa; Actress and Investor Kelly Rutherford; and Wired Editor-at-large Steven Levy — to name a few (view the full list here). 

Web Summit, which will be held Nov. 16-18 at Altice Arena and Fil, “will take place with a full program, including 25-plus stages, PITCH competitions, investor meetings, masterclasses and roundtables, and Mentor Hours. The event will reflect a rich, global tapestry of perspectives and experiences, with a record-breaking 2,600 startups,” according to a company blog post on Oct. 24.

Back Story

Web Summit 2022

On Oct. 13, Cosgrave posted on his X (formerly known as Twitter) account that he was “shocked at the rhetoric and actions of so many Western leaders & governments, with the exception in particular of Ireland’s government, who for once are doing the right thing. War crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies, and should be called out for what they are.”

Two days later on X, he posted “what Hamas did is outrageous and disgusting” but adding, “Israel has a right to defend itself, but it does not, as I have already stated, have a right to break international law.” 

On Oct. 17, Cosgrave published a statement on the Web Summit blog, “What is needed at this time is compassion, and I did not convey that. My aim is and always has been to strive for peace.” 

He added, “I also believe that, in defending itself, Israel should adhere to international law and the Geneva Conventions – i.e. not commit war crimes. This belief applies equally to any state in any war. No country should breach these laws, even if atrocities were committed against it.” 

According to a story by The Associated Press (AP), Cosgrave said in a statement that his personal comments “have become a distraction from the event, and our team, our sponsors, our startups and the people who attend. I sincerely apologize again for any hurt I have caused.” 

Big Picture

Cosgrave’s resignation is a high-profile example of the fallout from public statements by company executives on political and humanitarian issues that has impacted workplaces everywhere, including the exhibition industry. 

Since the conflict began on Oct. 7, when Hamas killed 1,400 people in Israel, triggering the latest war, some (but not a majority) industry associations and company executives have shared their views on the current geopolitical situation. 

Web Summit 2022

The Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) CEO Vincent Polito released a statement on Oct. 13 on Israel. “As stakeholders in the business events sector, we emphasize the importance of patience and perseverance in seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We recognize that this conflict might not conclude swiftly, but we remain hopeful that a resolution can be achieved without further tragedy,” Polito said.  

IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer posted a statement on LinkedIn about the unfolding situation in Israel: “We are horrified by the killing of Israeli citizens by Hamas terrorists for which there is absolutely no justification and we, at IMEX, condemn these terrorists acts in the strongest possible terms.”

She added, “We’ll be holding a minute’s silence during IMEX America [held Oct. 17-19 in Las Vegas].” 

What’s next

As they say, the show must go on. “Pending the appointment of a new CEO, our highly experienced management team is leading our global staff of 300 people in focusing once again on creating an event at which the companies that are building the future can meet, connect and interact with investors, innovators, global businesses, the media and a wider audience of people in interested in the future of tech,” according to company officials. 

Web Summit Chief Events Officer Craig Becker will continue to oversee the operations for the 2023 event. He has part of the event for 11 years. Before joining Web Summit, he produced major events like Madonna’s European Tour and Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday celebration. 

The event has sold more than 1,000 tickets in the last week, according to the company. As of Oct. 24, “we have more than 300 partners, 800 investors and 2,000 media confirmed.”

Web Summit media partners include a who’s who of the global media giants, including The Washington Post, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Fast Company, Politico and Forbes — to name a few (full list available here). Many broadcast live from the event.

Cosgrave still has an active account on X, but he hasn’t posted since Oct. 17, when he said: “Bye for now. Need some time off this platform.”

Update on Oct. 30: Web Summit names a new CEO: Katherine Maher, previously CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (between 2019 and 2021). Watch the video announcement.

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