On the face of it a good idea: four days in the beautiful Tuscany shooting the breeze about tech and entrepreneurship between European and US delegates.
However, try organising that from the U.S., not locking down the sponsors so they couldn't pull out at the last minute and then telling the delegates the event is officially cancelled, but so late that some of them have already arrived in Italy.
That at least seems to the be outcome of the abortive Partners for Growth and Innovation conference, which, despite a slick web site filled with enticing images of Tuscany, put up a statement this week:
“We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience caused by the cancellation of our Tuscany conference, due to the unexpected defection of our main corporate sponsor, and some unfortunate miscommunication, on our side. We learned our lesson and do apologize. We are now directly fixing any remaining issues, and will work soon on preparing for a new gathering, this Fall, with a different format and a pristine long term organization. Thank you for your understanding and support. Stay in touch!”
That was the official story. But since canceling the event with less that 24hrs notice to delegates – many of who were on their way to the venue – the principle organiser, Tanya Noel, has continued to promote another event in the Fall, with many of the same speakers, including myself. I'd agreed to speak at the one this week, but realised recently that Noel had put me into the line-up in the Fall (this is not the case).
So what is going on? TechCrunch Europe has had access to a series of emails which throw light on the abrupt cancellation of this event.
THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
Tanya Noel appears to be a Palo Alto based events organiser and social networker who started promoting the PGI conference on May 24, only a couple of months before the event it was due to happen this week in Tuscany.
She asked Italy/US-based entrepreneur Paolo Privitera to speak and promote the event to his network. As an Italian-born entrepreneur who works with three startups in San Francisco and his own, Digitix, Privitera says he marketed the conference to his large personal network in Italy.
However, it appears Privitera rapidly lost confidence after turning up to the hotel just before last weekend only to find an extremely angry hotel manager.
He wrote to Noel on Jun 26 saying The Palace Hotel in Viareggio had cancelled all the hotel room reservations for delegates, after losing faith in Noel's ability to come through with a deposit for the venue. “It is clear the conference is totally and ashamingly [sic.] over” he wrote. There then followed a flurry of emails to and between speakers, initiated by Privitera.
The story of whether money was sent to the hotel to cover the conference room or not now takes a complex turn.
Privitera claims the the conference never really “existed” since only 12 tickets were sold, of which 8 sold via his personal network. He claims Noel owes the hotel $14,000 in lost bookings.
Noel admitted – on these emails to speakers – that her credit card bounced when trying to pay for the conference room. Her credit card “was lost, and no longer valid.” She says the hotel still agreed to hold the rooms, so long as the delegates paid for their room.
Events manager Serena Giovannoni has told us: “the Hotel manager did not cancel anything, because 24h in advance of a reservation they had no interest in doing this. They'd rather have people coming. The problem was that people were expected to pay for their own room upon arrival and the hotel would not accept the idea that they would invoice to Tanya Noel afterwards. The hotel had lost trust in her.” She says Noel implied she would have to collect money from ppl for the coffee breaks, lunches and dinners.
At the beginning of June the hotel says they had asked for a 30% deposit to be paid in case of cancellation but they say Noel never paid and said a sponsor would come forward.
Unfortunately it would appear many speakers and delegates did not know they were supposed to pay for their rooms.
As an alternative Noel says she sent $1,400 to Privitera via PayPal to pay for the conference room at the Palace Hotel. Noel claims she had an “an agreement in place with the hotel that that they would invoice PGI for whatever the room balance was.”
With this Paypal transfer Privitera was supposed to withdraw money, via his own bank account, and use cash (although there is a $500 daily limit on ATMs) to pay the hotel.
However, when he checked his Paypal account, he says, the money had not cleared and it was then that he received an email from Noel saying that she was not coming to the conference in order to “save on costs” and that he would have to chair it.
Let's repeat that: the main organiser was not coming. Noel had decided not to show up to the event she'd organised, claiming that this would save on costs.
Noel says Privitera was to “co-chair” the conference, along with another delegate who now says she was never contacted. Privitera say this was news to him – he'd been asked to speak and promote the conference but co-chairing was never mentioned until the point when Noel said she was not coming.
According to Noel, the Palace Hotel manager did not cancel the hotel reservations, but the hotel's event manager did.
CHANGE OF LOCATION
Following the chatter of emails amongst speakers hurriedly cancelling their travel plans, Noel sent an email to delegates via PGI's eventbrite page that “the Venue has now changed from Viareggio, Italy, to a beautiful conference center in Umbria.” Noel says she disabled all the ticket sales immediately on Sunday and that she “did not cancel this conference”.
However, the Umbria “plan B” did not materialize, especially since, at last count, only two people made it there.
On the emails that followed, Noel claimed that Privitera acted too soon, claiming the hotel had NOT cancelled. But he says that without the hotel's backing or the main organiser the conference was unsalvageable.
The “conference”, with no venue and a handful of delegates who made it over, was “moved” to Umbria, Tuscany, although there was no venue organised apart from the vague suggestion of using a local monastery. The conference was, somewhat hastily, re-branded an unconference.
One couple who arrived at the alternative location in Umbria said on an email to speakers that they found no alternative venue organised. Although Noel later confirmed the monastery could be used for the unconference, to TechCrunch's knowledge, nothing actually happened.
ITALY'S TECH SCENE CONCERNED
Despite the distance and picturesque but obscure location north of Pisa, it's also clear that a number of Italian entrepreneurs threw their weight behind the event thinking it would attract US-related speakers to Italy and promote entrepreneurial ties.
However, PGI appears to have been poorly positioned for Italian entrepreneurs from the start.
A well known conference called Frontiers of Interaction, in a stunning historical theater in Rome, lasted 2 days and cost $300. PGI tickets were pitched at $699 for four days, not including hotel costs.
It's worth adding that having 60 overseas delegates turn up is not small thing in a town like a Viareggio, where restaurants and cafes would have probably have heard on the grapevine that a bigger than usual delegation was due in town. Our sources say the financial impact on the hotel alone is closer to $20,000.
THE LOST DELEGATES
We understand Joey Fernadez, founder of Klout actually went to Italy, as did Clint Nelsen of StartupWeekend. Both have said they ended up just trying to make a vacation of it all.
Noel says delegates had agreed to cover their hotel and food (unusual for conferences where at least lunch is normally part of the deal). However, several delegates say they had no idea they were supposed to pay for their hotel rooms.
One or two ticket holders have talked about legal action.
THE MISSING SPONSOR
Noel says “our sponsor did not come through.” So her idea was to stay in the US, while the conference was on in Italy to “continue trying to raise sponsorship.”
Looking at the PDF still on the site, it looks like conference sponsorship ranged from $3,000 (lunch sponsorship) to $35,000 for the whole conference. Any sponsors that were on the site have been removed, only media sponsors remain.
Normally conferences sign up sponsors to contrats which prevents them from pulling out at the last moment. Noel has told us, on email, that despite verbal reassurances the main sponsor pulled out. She admits that not getting them to sign a contract was “Dumb on my part!”
Noel has apologised to speakers on email for the “disruption, stress, and worry, that this has caused” and says she will reimburse delegates. She says she “should have allowed more than 3 months to plan it.”
Noel admits the conference was “a little too far out” and that it only had 18 registrations. “Clearly I screwed up in some ways, for which I am extremely sorry,” she says.
So this appeared to be a conference with no sponsors, no attendees, no conference room and in a location that, while great for a vacation, or informal gathering, is not the usual conference venue.
We understand Italian entrepreneurs are now emailing Noel to ask her not to come to Italy, lest this incident rub off on their own Italian events.
Noel admits she made mistakes and is sorry: “I failed, big time, but I gave it everything I had.”
Noel's site now says this week's event has been “rescheduled” to Umbria in September although questions will be raised about the ability of PGI to execute an event, going forward.
It would appear the whole episode appears to turn on couple of points. The hotel lost confidence in the organiser after a bounced credit card bill. Then the co-organiser lost confidence on Noel after finding out, just before the start of the event, that she was not coming. This lead to a series of email exchanges in which the entire speaker list was CC'd. The speakers lost confidence and cancelled their travel plans.
Did PGI suffer from a lack of planning and visibility?
Noel says she found it hard to get word out about the event amongst tech blogs and social media. “We also did not receive support from any of the major bloggers or tech news sites, in the U.S. or Europe, even though we did ask many times,” she told us on email. However, of course this is not the core point of blogs which write about tech. And for such a complex event in such a location it usually takes a year of promotion whereas this was announced only a few weeks ago.
Tanya Noel, asked to comment, said “We're deeply sorry that our conference failed, and in the true spirit of Silicon Valley which is built on a long history of failures, we will fix what we did wrong, take care of business matters, allow more time for planning.”
Finally, we've also heard a young student from Scandinavia arrived Monday, but she was told the event was cancelled.
Noel continues to promote the postponed event this Fall in Umbria.