Loic LeMeur, a popular French tech entrepreneur and blogger who runs a Web 2.0 startup called Seesmic when he has spare time, is the organizer of LeWeb, arguably one of Europe's most 'star-studded' internet conferences.
The first LeWeb conference took place in 2005 and has grown from a modest 250 attendees that first year to over 1,800 in 2007. As Paul Carr of The Guardian notes in his report on LeWeb 2008, LeWeb has seen its fair share of controversy and criticism in the past.
LeWeb '08 took place last week and it seems that LeMeur has outdone himself. Unfortunately for those who shelled out €1,495 to attend, LeMeur did not outdo himself in a positive manner.
From an organizational standpoint, LeWeb was a mess.
Wireless internet access at the conference didn't work most of the time, a real problem for any conference that brings together technologists who might consider internet access as essentially to basic life functions as water. Making matters worse, Carr reports that the startups presenting their internet-based products at LeWeb's startup competition were forced to do so without internet access.
Perhaps for attendees like Robert Scoble, the inability to log in to Twitter and FriendFeed was a blessing in disguise (although I am told that he was spotted playing Solitaire). But concentrating is tough when you're freezing cold. That's right - LeWeb's venue, Le CentQuatre, was without heat the first day due to the failure of the venue's heating system. Attendees were forced to sit through the first day of LeWeb in a chilly 57 degree Fahrenheit environment.
Then came the food, which apparently wasn't very good. At this point, it's truly amazing that there was not a riot. Cold, hungry techies without internet access can be dangerous.
By now, you're probably asking - could it get any worse? A lot of attendees were apparently asking themselves the same question.
Carr reports that prominent attendees who flew out to LeWeb from the other side of the pond were not pleased. According to Carr, AllThingsDigital's Kara Swisher suggested that other attendees move to California, which has internet access and good weather. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington reportedly considered sending some of his staff home since they were unable to post reports. And 1938 Media's Loren Feldman asked, in Loren Feldman style, how difficult it would be to get internet access by cable.
Obviously, it's quite clear that LeWeb was the conference equivalent of Lehman Brothers - a house of cards waiting to collapse.
In a post entitled "Apologies for organizational issues at LeWeb08," LeMeur essentially placed all of the blame on LeWeb's vendors.
Swisscom was paid over €100,000 to provide wireless internet access to the large crowd and couldn't pull it off. Of course, LeMeur notes that "Wifi for highly demanding geek crowds above 1500 participants is something no supplier has much experience of and I don't know any event where it really works frankly," which begs the question - why promise it to your attendees if you know that doing so isn't a promise you can keep?
The venue, Le CentQuatre, "never had a big event before, it just opened," according to LeMeur. While he notes that Le CentQuatre seemed to be one of the more ideal venues available for LeWeb 2008, one has to ask - why exactly would you use a venue that has never hosted a large event when you have over 1,800 attendees paying €1,495?
As for the food, "our food supplier was a total disappointment." Which was very disappointing to LeMeur since he claims to have paid the same amount per attendee as he did last year. While I can understand that food suppliers are often a hit-and-miss proposition, LeMeur's statement that "we increased in a big way the food quantity from the first day experience to as much as they could deliver for the second day regardless of additional budget required with emergency orders during the nights" seems to indicate that there was a real lack of good planning on his end as well.
Of course, as the event organizer, the buck stops with LeMeur and I think the fact that he places the blame on all of his vendors says a lot. With LeWeb being in its fifth year, you'd think LeMeur would have done a better job and at the very least, would take full responsibility for ensuring a positive attendee experience. Things go wrong at big events but how well the organizer handles them (and how well the organizer has prepared for the presence of Murphy's Law).
To add insult to injury, the substance of LeWeb 2008 was also criticized. Carr calls the 'fireside chats' that were held at the conference "so rambling and unfocused in a stereotypically French style that I kept hoping that the ghost of Charles Bukowski would float drunkenly on to disrupt them."
While Michael Arrington, himself a speaker, praised the content at LeWeb '08, apparently the attendees didn't like the content Arrington's provided. Arrington said some things on stage that weren't too kind to European culture. This seems to have offended enough attendees to cause LeMeur to stage a vote asking if Arrington should be invited back to LeWeb next year. This public drama is made even more intriguing because of the fact that Arrington is an investor in LeMeur's Seesmic.
But attendees of LeWeb '08 didn't pay for drama. They didn't pay for poor wireless internet access. They didn't pay for a broken heating system. They didn't pay for lackluster food. They paid to attend what they expected would be a kick-ass technology conference.
In my opinion, all of this demonstrates how not to run a successful technology conference. The best conferences are well-organized affairs that bring together competent people to talk about important, interesting topics. They leave attendees feeling like they got more in value than they paid in dollars (or Euros).
Of course, people keep paying to attend these conferences, so perhaps the title of this post is wrong. Maybe LeWeb '08 is exactly how tech conferences should be run. After all, if history is any indication, you can be sure that no matter how much people complain, they'll be back next year in similar numbers to attend LeWeb '09.
At the end of the day, we vote everyday on lots of things with our wallets.
If attendees at LeWeb '08 (and other conferences that have been plagued with controversy) want more organization, better panels and less drama, they need to send that message by voting with their wallets. Until such time, I'll make a prediction - people will keep spending thousands of dollars to attend conferences that they complain about year after year.