Tech

Every “first” since the start of the pandemic comes with an extra dose of excitement, as well as anxiety. For me, last week included plenty of both.



It was the first time I travelled on an airplane, and the first time I crossed an international border, since early 2020. I was headed to Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, the fifth time I was attending Europe’s largest tech conference. (The organizers covered my travel expenses in exchange for me moderating some panels.)

There was the excitement of reuniting with colleagues and friends, presenting on stage in front of a live audience, and conducting interviews face-to-face, rather than over Zoom. There was also the anxiety that comes from airport and conference screenings and health checks, regular COVID-19 testing, and the general uneasiness of wading through crowds at a packed conference center after nearly two years of social distancing.

Other major tech industry events in recent months—such as IBM Think, SAP’s Sapphire Now, and Salesforce’s Dreamforce—were moved to a virtual or mostly-virtual format, making Web Summit the first major in-person tech event since the pandemic began. Before the end of January the tech industry will gather in person again at events like AWS re:Invent and CES in Las Vegas, and the JP Morgan Chase Annual Health Care Conference in San Francisco. If Web Summit is any indication of what’s to come, attendees should expect a little extra discomfort—and excitement—in the months ahead.

FEWER ATTENDEES—BUT STILL LOTS OF THEM

This year, Web Summit brought more than 40,000 conference goers to the Portuguese capital, marking a significant decrease from the more than 70,000 who attended in 2019. But since the venue was also scaled down a bit, the reduced attendance was hardly felt. Attendees were told to arrive with proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test (or both for those without valid European COVID-19 vaccination credentials), though security didn’t check those credentials too thoroughly. Attendees were also required to wear a mask at all times unless eating or drinking, a loophole that seemed to grow wider as the conference wore on.

Though the lowered attendance indicates that a fair percentage of Web Summit regulars weren’t ready to return in person, the show represented a networking opportunity that some entrepreneurs found too important to pass up, despite ongoing health and safety concerns. Taking advantage of that opportunity, however, did come with a certain degree of implied risk. A single positive test result among the thousands of participants could have far-reaching implications for those they interacted with, such as work disruptions, quarantine requirements, and not being able to fly home on schedule. 

“If you’re coming to a 40,000-person conference, there’s an expectation that you’re going to mingle, and there’s going to be a lot of people everywhere,” says Nicole Baker, the cofounder of Biologit, an Ireland-based AI platform that helps drug makers identify adverse reactions to their products.

“If you’re a well-established company that’s not selling anything new, maybe [avoid events for now], but if you’re a startup and you’ve developed during the pandemic, you need to go out and meet people, because you need to promote your company,” added Baker’s cofounder, Bruno Ohana.