Once a city's hosted the Olympics, it’s tough to get its tourism industry nervous with talk about welcoming an 1,800-person conference. But when those 1,800 attendees are among the most influential people in the world and the conference itself is a global phenomenon with lecture videos viewed online more than a billion times, even the most experienced convention bureaus sit up and take notice.
That’s exactly what happened when TED— which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design—expressed interest in bringing its annual conference to Vancouver, B.C. As the city gears up to host its fifth TED Conference in April, we’re taking a look at how TED got to Vancouver and what the city’s learned.
With a level of secrecy closer to the D-Day invasion than to your spouse’s surprise birthday party, Rick Antonson, then CEO of Tourism Vancouver, began by assembling his team with a mission to turn that interest into a reality.
Antonson says that without the 2010 Winter Olympics, he’s not sure TED would have noticed Vancouver. Although Vancouver is a quintessentially international city, “prior to the Olympics, no one could find it on a map. The Olympics changed that.”
And it’s not because they went off without a hitch. The city faced several challenges headon, from the tragic death of a competitor the day before the Games opened to the warmest January in a century, which left organizers relying on trucked-in snow for some events. “The Olympics showed the world that even when faced with almost insurmountable problems, the talent pool that works on an event in Canada is exceptional. … It was brought to our attention by meeting planners that everybody following it on the news saw all these problems, and they saw them solved,” Antonson says.
Among those watching were the TED team. Katherine McCartney, director of operations for TED called Antonson the last Friday of November 2012 to tell him that TED’s curator and owner, Chris Anderson, wanted to meet him the following Monday. Antonson asked why, and she said there was a chance TED might relocate after having spent 29 years in Long Beach, California, and that Vancouver was on the short list of new homes. “My jaw dropped,” Antonson says.
He asked McCartney if he could invite a few others to the meeting. “Her response was, ‘Only if they are people who can help move mountains, because that’s the kind of people we need in the room.’”
Antonson called in Ken Cretney, then the chief operating officer for the B.C. Pavilion Corporation; Greg Klassen, then senior vice president of marketing strategy for the Vancouver Convention Centre; and Tourism Vancouver vice president Dave Gazley.
“Rick called me and said, ‘I can’t tell you why; I can’t tell you what it’s all about, but can you meet me on Monday at 9 a.m.?’” Klassen recalls. “It piqued my curiosity. I’d never had this kind of ‘can’t tell you what it is’ call.” So Klassen started trying to figure it out. “I noticed Oprah was coming to Vancouver,” he says. The Canadian tourism commission had been trying to get Oprah to feature Canada in stories for a decade, and Klassen was confident when he walked into Antonson’s office that the meeting was about Oprah Winfrey.
“I walked in, and Rick introduces me to Chris Anderson from TED,” Klassen says. “I said, ‘I’m a massive TED fan. … This is way better than Oprah.’”
They didn’t know which other cities were in the running—they still don’t, says Antonson. But they knew if they had any chance of landing TED in Vancouver, they couldn’t let word leak out. In fact, negotiations with TED were so secret, Antonson couldn’t discuss it with his board of directors. “I couldn’t even tell our board chair what this was about. I said, ‘You just have to trust me that we are onto something that, when you find out about it, you’ll know we did all the right things for all the right reasons.’”
Antonson’s board members weren’t the only ones in the dark. “The hotels did not know who it was,” even while negotiating to host guests, he says. “We probably stretched our abilities as managers to convince people to go along with us on something when they didn’t know what it was, just that it was really big.” The day before the announcement, Antonson finally spilled the beans to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and city manager Penny Ballem. “She was driving along the Coquihalla Highway, and she got so excited she started to speed.”
If you aren’t familiar with TED beyond the ubiquitous online TED Talks videos, this might all seem to be a little much. But the audience at the annual TED conference is filled with people more often found on a stage imparting wisdom than as part of the crowd listening. This year, tickets to TED will run you $10,000—and that’s only if your essay application is accepted. The TED Conference is treated like a distinguished dinner party, where guests are carefully considered to promote the best discussions. That means each year Vancouver hosts 1,800 attendees who are world leaders in technology, politics, entertainment and business. And each year, Vancouver gets to show its best side to these influential voices.
“Once a year, there are probably more billionaires in Vancouver than in any other location around the world,” marvels Klassen. “That means significant security operations in place without being too overt, because it’s still Canada and still Vancouver.”
But it’s not the idle rich. “TED is bringing in some of the best minds, best innovators in the world,” Cretney says.
Klassen says that pays off for Vancouver in more ways than just tourism dollars. “It’s an opportunity for them to discover the place they’re in, to learn and understand about its social and business climate, its political climate.” And it’s helping Vancouver attract the types of industries they want to grow. “Silicon Valley is running out of room,” he says. “Bringing people here, they can see the business opportunities. We’re in the same time zone as Silicon Valley and Seattle, not too far away and with a different angle on innovation.”
Just within the meetings industry, achieving the exacting standards set by such a prestigious event has given Vancouver tremendous cachet. “If you can do TED, you can do just about any event,” Cretney says. “And they did challenge us.”
One of the first challenges was the distinctive TED theater. The dramatic staging of TED conferences posed a significant worry. The theater is built from huge pieces of lumber. “Our building engineers looked at the architectural drawings and said there is no physical way this could come into the building,” recalls Claire Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre. Convention Centre engineers agreed it wouldn’t work. “But they wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Smith says. So TED engineers worked with the center’s engineers and determined that while the lumber to build the stage wouldn’t fit through the loading bay doors, they could remove glass doors to bring it in and build the theater in place. “Your first instinct is to say, ‘No, you can’t build a fourstory theater in our ballroom,’” she says. “If you do the math, it doesn’t work. But when you problem-solve together, it does work.”
“I overheard that it fit within inches,” Klassen says. “I think in some cases it was a closer fit than they expected.”
Learning to say yes is one of the best lessons the Vancouver Convention Centre has learned from hosting TED for five years, Smith says. “It can be something as simple as coffee service,” she says. “They wanted to bring in the top baristas from around the world to make coffee and show off award-winning barista talents.” But the Vancouver Convention Centre had its own systems, and the special baristas weren’t part of it. “Again, the first inclination is to say, ‘No, that’s not how we do it,’” Smith says. Learning to quash that inclination and get to yes has paid off, not just for TED but for other groups using the center.
“They have a philosophy where they continue to kind of wow their community. Sometimes that means they throw pretty incredible things at us,” Smith says. From award-winning baristas to a room full of miniature drones flying above the audience, “they try to push the envelope,” she adds. “Almost always, we find a way. Their event team is so resourceful, and between their team and our team, we’ve pretty much been able to make it happen,” she says. “We’ve used the word ‘no,’ but I don’t know that it ever stuck that way. … It’s kind of fun. Now we’re like, ‘OK, what are they going to throw at us this year?’ We get excited by that now.”
Some of TED’s practices and quirks have been put to use for other conferences, Smith says, because they work. One of the most controversial for some conference planners is the idea of creating workspaces for delegates to slip away to use. TED provides work areas, collaborative spaces and a teleconferencing room for attendees, so no one is stuck on a cell phone conference call just outside the venue.
“We’ve never fully replicated the TED experience for another group, but we have put in some permanent installations modeled after TED,” she says. Some planners have balked at the idea of making it easy for delegates to leave the main conference room, but Smith says it works. “If you don’t let busy people work, they are going to go back to their hotel room to work, and then they are not part of the community,” she says. “Let’s not fight it. Let’s actually enable it. Allow people to go get something done and come back.”
Another innovation from TED that other conferences are starting to use is the concept of choice. “Most traditional conferences are very prescriptive. Now it’s the general session. Now it’s the trade show. Now it’s lunchtime,” Smith says. “But if you think about TED’s audience, they are very influential people. They will make their own choices. So enable them.”
That means instead of a big banquet or luncheon in a crowded room, TED brings in many cuisine options and uses food trucks to expand the offerings. Attendees can also choose from a variety of locations and times to eat.
Even TED talks are shown on high-end video monitors in minitheaters throughout the building. If you don’t want to be in the main theater, you can go to a smaller room where you can put your feet up and chat while watching the presentation. They even have a “ball room” filled with little plastic balls to provide a playful spot to enjoy the talks. “They’re creating a very engaging experience by letting go of that control,” Smith says.
You won’t find a traditional trade show space at TED. No one is collecting branded doodads and geegaws in a differently branded cinch sack, all destined for a landfill. But they do have partners providing “experiential branding” for delegates. An example is Lululemon, which, in the past, has offered a breathing room. Interested delegates got a pair of comfy Lululemon socks and a quiet space to have a meditative moment.
“I don’t believe they set out to change what a trade show is like or change what a convention is like,” Smith says. “They’ve simply created an environment that meets their needs.” But as an outsider, Smith says she’s learned a lot from TED, and she sees more and more convention delegates starting to want the same kind of treatment TED gives its guests. “People are demanding choice. They want to be in control of their event experiences,” Smith says. “It’s one thing for us to encourage groups to think that way, but I think their delegates are also pushing for that. We just need to keep that conversation going.”