A little Lisbon and Web Summit advice

When I arrived in Lisbon for Web Summit in 2016, I had about the least experience possible with the place for somebody who had visited it once before–because that previous visit happened when I was one year old. But over four more Web Summit trips in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, I’ve gotten a much deeper sense of the city and the conference.

If you’re coming to both for the first time, I hope you will find this post helpful.

A Web Summit sign in the Praça Dom Pedro IV, as seen during 2021's conference.

Arrival

Expect a terrific view of Lisbon and the Tagus River on your way into Humberto Delgado Airport–and then steel yourself for a long passport line if you don’t have a passport from one of the European Union’s member state. (This is the airport that persuaded me to renew my long-dormant Irish passport.) You can and should pick up your Web Summit badge right after you clear customs.

Getting around

The Lisbon Metro should be your new friend. Although its network is not all that extensive, it connects to the airport and Web Summit’s venue (more on that in a moment) and ensures that most parts of the center city are only a short walk from a stop. Of the various fares, I’ve found that a Zapping prepaid credit–also good on buses and Lisbon’s hill-climbing trams–has worked best for me.

Update, 10/27/2022: A reader pointed out that Web Summit has arranged for discounted multiple-day transit passes, with the best involving buying ahead of time at the Lisbon Metro’s site (for instance, €25 for five days) and then redeem at a ticket-vending machine by punching in the voucher code e-mailed to you.

Like all good European cities, Lisbon is marvelously walkable and worth strolling around aimlessly during any idle time you may have (such as the day you arrive, when you’ll want to get some sun on your face to counteract the time-zone shift). But it’s a lot steeper than most, and its stone-mosaic sidewalks are slippery when wet.

Don’t forget to eat. Portugueuse food is delicious, and eating in Lisbon was a bargain long before the dollar hit parity with the euro.

Conference app and site

Web Summit not only provides but mandates Android and iOS mobile apps that store your ticket, let you manage your schedule, and network and chat with other attendees. Think of the app on your phone as Web Summit’s answer to WeChat–except this “everything app” doesn’t come with constant state surveillance.

Unfortunately, the Web Summit app and the Web Summit site don’t synchronize. And the app somehow does not support copy and paste (judging from its performance on my Pixel 5a and iPad mini 5), so if you want to save the description and participants of a panel for your notes, you’ll need to switch from the app to the site, search for the panel on the site, and then copy the info from there.

Venue

Web Summit takes places at the Altice Arena and, next door to that roughly 20,000-seat arena, the Feira Internacional de Lisboa convention center. These buildings are about a 10-minute walk from the Oriente station on the Red Line (Linha Vermelha) of the Lisbon Metro, but it can take easily twice as long to walk from the arena to the most distant hall of the convention center. It can also take a while to get in on the first couple of days, when the queue backs up into the plaza in front of the FIL and the arena.

You should be able to rely on the conference WiFi, but power outlets may be harder to find. If you’re a speaker, you should also be able to rely on the speaker lounge for all your meals; otherwise, there are numerous food trucks and stands to choose from in the plazas between the FIL’s four halls. You should not expect to get to every panel you had in mind, but there are enough interesting talks going on that–as at one of my other regular talkfests, SXSW–it can make sense to camp out in one spot and let yourself be surprised.

Departure

The security lines at LIS can be gruesome, like 30 minutes gruesome. But if you have Star Alliance Gold status (which for U.S. readers usually means Premier Gold or higher status on United) and are flying on a Star Alliance airline like United, TAP or Lufthansa, you can take this airport’s elite-shortcut “Gold Track” line–just remember that it’s labeled “Green Way” instead of “Gold Track” because reasons.

That status also lets you stop by TAP’s lounge if you’re on a Star Alliance carrier, but with the common premium travel credit card perk of a Priority Pass membership you can also enjoy the ANA lounge (no relation to the Japanese airline) regardless of your flight. Either one is good for a breakfast before a long day above the Atlantic. Remember, though, that a potentially tedious non-EU passport exit line awaits after the lounges unless you’re flying to another Schengen-area country.

If even after standing for too long in both the security and passport lines, you still find yourself looking forward to returning to Lisbon–don’t worry, that’s a normal reaction.

Speaking on an arena scale

LISBON–My fourth panel at Web Summit here was not like the other three. Or like any other panel I’ve done since what I’ve taken to calling “the performance art of journalism” became part of my repertoire. Because Thursday I spoke in front of the largest audience and in the largest room of my entire public-speaking life.

The interview I did on the stage of the Altice Arena here of Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis was the last addition to my speaking schedule, and the invitation I was fastest to accept. Every other panel I’ve done at this conference since 2016 has taken place on one of the side stages, where crowds can get into the hundreds; this venue, however, is a 20,000-seat facility, and I could not turn that down. As anxious as standing up there might turn out to be…

Photo of the path leading to the stage of the Altice Arena, with its colored backdrop visible at the end of this passage.

Thursday afternoon came, and with half an hour to go I wrote down my panel outline on the last vacant pair of pages in a paper notebook, nervous energy making my penmanship even sloppier than usual. Then a volunteer walked us over to the backstage, where Web Summit’s illuminated backdrop loomed a few stories above and a sound tech fitted us with wireless headphones. I had a last chug of water before we stood and waited in a small passage leading to the stage.

Then it was show time. The emcee called out our names, the entrance music I’ve heard before so many other center-stage Web Summit panels played, and we walked past a camera operator who was there to get video of our entrance–a little bit of rock-star treatment.

I waved hello to the crowd, sat down in my chair, and immediately realized that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn’t see more than a third of the way into the audience, although I could at least confirm that they were mostly on the floor and not in the stands. (The picture I took then came out so ill-exposed that even Google Photos couldn’t do much with it.) And without my glasses, I couldn’t hope to read people’s facial expressions. Hearing the audience was also tricky, with our own amplified voices clanging back at us off the arena’s concrete.

But I had my outline on paper before me and an engaging conversation partner to my right to answer my questions about the gadget startup he co-founded with other veterans of the Android-phone firm OnePlus. The 13 minutes on the countdown clock before us ticked down to 11 and 9 and 7 and 5 as our verbal tennis continued… at which point I realized that with one question left unasked on my notepad, I’d need to improvise. Panel clock management is always trickiest when you have only one other person up there.

That’s when it helped that we’d had sat down yesterday to go over the panel and then had another chat in the speakers’ lounge before heading backstage. We ended up finishing maybe 20 seconds over.

I might as well have had fireworks going off in my head as the audience applauded and Akis and I shook hands before exiting the stage. It was a moment the 2001-vintage me would have struggled to imagine, much less the grade-school version of me who dreaded giving a speech before a classroom. And it’s something I won’t be able to keep out of my mind the next time I’m doing a virtual panel and wishing I had a human audience’s feedback.