By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira
LISBON (Reuters) – Smiling behind her mask, Roberta Astuto, a British Italian account executive, is one of the 40,000 people descending upon Lisbon on Tuesday for Europe’s largest tech fest. She is over the moon to return after COVID-19 forced it online last year.
“It feels so good to be back to almost normal – even with masks,” Astuto, 52, said as she looked for her company’s booth in one of the conference’s huge pavilions. “It makes me feel alive again.”
Web Summit was one of several events to be held online in 2020 due to the pandemic but it is now back in full force, welcoming attendees, speakers and reporters from all over the world.
To enter the summit, people must have their EU digital COVID certificate or a negative test to hand. All attendees are required to wear masks indoors and outdoors.
“I feel very safe because Portugal has dealt with pandemic really well and the vaccination rate is great – so feels like we are back to normal,” said Branca Freitas, a Brazilian living in Portugal, where 86% of people are fully jabbed.
Like others, Freitas, 27, believes online and hybrid events are here to stay but, for her, nothing – not even technology – can replace in-person interactions. Aleksei Antonov, a chief product officer from Russia, agreed.
“I come here to get inspiration for the whole year,” the 36-year-old said before he walked through the summit’s security checkpoint. “The whole world has changed and online events can be inspiring too but I prefer live events.”
Most are happy to be back but some are having trouble getting to the venue as staff at Lisbon’s underground metro service – widely used by attendees – is holding strikes throughout the week, causing disruptions and delays.
“No startup can fix Lisbon’s public transportation problem,” an attendee wrote on Twitter, while another said: “Met new people thanks to the strike… we ordered a bigger Uber and are on our way… there’s always positive side.”
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira in Lisbon; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)