by Elizabeth Rich | October 01, 2015

Conferences' traditional hosts have been associations, government and companies. Usually it is the exhibition area where we are used to seeing entrepreneurs who take risks producing shows. But in recent years we are seeing more private entrants launching new conferences. It is a vibrant trend which should be welcomed by the industry as it underlines the appeal of live events as a communication option, in a world which increasingly offers multiple online communication choices.

How refreshing, indeed exciting, to see these risk takers jumping in the deep end of start-up events.

Granted there has been a handful of conference companies which have existed for some time, researching gaps in the market and filling niches, such as IIR Conferences and Terrapinn.

But it is the creative minds who are moving in to produce and deliver conferences with an edge - events which are appealing to a discerning market looking for something different. These live events have producers and curators, rather than PCOs and organising committees. The focus is on stimulation and engagement, not logistics and repetitive programming. Participants are setting their own agendas.

Perhaps TED was the catalyst. It first burst onto the scene in 1984, although it was another six years before it got the traction that eventually saw it grow into a global brand and community, spawning TEDex, TEDWomen, TEDYouth, TEDCity2.0 and TEDSalons.

People clamour to speak at and attend live TED events. Some traditional conferences are copying this new approach, adding TED-style short sharp talks to their programmes. These new events are lifting the bar across the whole industry. They dare to be different and come unencumbered by entrenched attitudes. TED is only one example. Others have come onboard. C2 Montreal brands itself "A Business Conference - Only Different". C2 stands for commerce + creativity. Curated by a global company company called Sid Lee, the founding partner is Cirque de Soleil with Microsoft onboard as a leadership partner. The Montreal Convention Bureau must be delighted to see this annual event become such a winner since it was launched in 2012. The idea was to develop a corporate event that would encourage business leaders to adopt creativity and innovation practices. Over 1,000 participants meet not in a conference centre, but in a heritage building which is now a contemporary art gallery which houses an "innovation village" built especially for the three-day event. Once again, we see spin-offs developing, with smaller conferences called C2 Sparks being held across European cities.

Attendance at these conferences has become a brag factor. One Australian PCO mentioned recently that his corporate client was using all-expenses attendance at C2 Montreal as a staff incentive reward. No doubt a win-win for the organisation. The big one is SouthBySouthWest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. It kicked off as a small music festival in 1987 but has grown to welcome 28,000 conference/festival participants today over various elements including music, film and interactive technologies. The organisers expected about 150 people at the first event, but 700 came. It brings in well over $200 million to the Austin economy, making it the region's most lucrative event. 

These entrepreneurs are to be applauded. Not for the fainthearted, the entrants must produce a dynamic programme to attract paying registrants and be prepared to hang in there for a few years to establish the brand. But the rewards can make it all worthwhile, when a regular event becomes a recognisable brand and then a saleable commodity. TED lost money the first time around, and didn't run again for six years when they got the magic mix right. In 2001, the original creators sold the business and the rest is history.

What about Asia? Expect to see more entrepreneurs move into this fertile ground. Not every one will work. But when they do, they will make magic.

Elizabeth Rich is an Australia-based business events specialist with experience as an association manager, PCO, trainer, speaker, writer and consultant. A keen observer of the international market, Elizabeth has over 35 years' experience in business events. elizabethrich@agenda.net.au