TED, Anticipating the attendee's needs

30th Mar, 2016

A global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan "Ideas Worth Spreading", TED, for Technology, Entertainment, Design, has long been seen as the innovating conference par excellence. TED was founded in 1984 as a one-off event, while the annual conference series began in 1990.TED's early emphasis was technology and design, consistent with its Silicon Valley origins, but it has since broadened its focus to include talks on many scientific, cultural, and academic topics. Katherine McCartney, Director of Operations, tells HQ more about what TED is about and her role in running the conferences.

Interview Rémi Dévé

Everybody knows about TED conferences. But how did they start?

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

Katherine McCartneyTwice a year, a group of interesting and impactful people gathers for the week-long TED experience — which attendees have described as "the ultimate brain spa" and "a journey into the future in the company of those creating it". It's a winning formula of brilliant, curious minds and groundbreaking content in an immersive and focused environment.  It’s comprised of many industry leaders and a lot of names you would be familiar with. 

What’s the story behind them and their relocation from Long Beach to Vancouver for instance? 

We had moved the conference from Monterey to Long Beach back in 2008 and by 2013 we knew it was time to move again. I looked at 40 destinations and shortlisted 3, my strong recommendation was Vancouver. I am confident saying we are in Vancouver for the forseeable future with the main conference. Other TED Conferences are held in different cities – an example, TEDWomen is in San Francisco  – and TEDGlobal changes locations often.   

Vancouver was selected in 2013 to hold TED2014 (and of course subsequent TED’s in 15 and 16) because the city “works” for us.  The conference centre is across the street from 3 five-star hotel properties, and, due to its excellent location on the waterfront, the area is its own microcosm within the city making it super efficient and easy for our attendees. The situation also sits on the skirts of a couple of the city’s  well know areas for dining and entertainment. Not to mention the spectacular backdrop of mountains and ocean to the LEEDS Platinum certified conference centre.  

What is your role in TED? How did you get involved?

Back in 2001 I heard that Chris Anderson had just purchased TED.  I had worked with him on a project back in 1999 and so I gave him a call, because I was interested in producing the conferences for him.  We met, and 15 years later here we are. 

We had a couple of months before we would arrive at TED2002, to open registration for our full conference TED2003 in Monterey California.  We transitioned from the previous owner to what TED is now. I am responsible for the Conference Operations for all conferences out of the main head office – TEDWomen, TED, TEDGlobal, and odd retreats, summits.

As Director of Operations I am response for destination, the venue selection, contracting, and then operations of the conference which includes the technical production, stage and building theatres, building temporary structures etc. 

Can you talk about TEDx and TED-like events?

The TEDx programme lets individuals, organisations and communities worldwide hold local, independent TED-like events. To date, more than 13,000 TEDx events have been held in 150 countries. The individuals are typically fairly extroverted and interested in ideas. They produce the events without any assistance from TED other than a library of tools they have access to. We do put their talks online and when you view them at TED.com it will always indicate where that talk came from (ie TEDxSydney) .

How challenging is it to find good speakers?

Curation of the speakers is handled out of the New York office by the Curation team.  They have many ways of finding speakers, including suggestions from our own attendees, the TED staff, and the general public can always go online to nominate a speaker on www.ted.com under “Participate”. Having said that we have a great curation team who are always researching any number of avenues to find great speakers. 

The curators at TED find great conference topics by brainstorming with a larger team and floating ideas. Concepts are collected throughout the year as to what might work for a conference “theme” and a small subgroup usually determine what the theme topic will be – that’s how we stay on top of the game.

How do you cope with TED’s popularity? is it a challenge or an honour? Are there a lot of copycats out there?

TED is by far one of the best conferences as it relates to anticipating the attendee's needs. I think we do such a great job to allow spaces for attendees to work and connect with others, while still being part of the overall conference.  We run a very tight programme with a lot of elements to it.

I think we want them to think of TED as being a unique experience they can’t get elsewhere and that we continue to raise the bar, be creative, be experimental, be leading edge with our mission and how we portray that to the conference experience.  Is it an honour – absolutely.  TED is very popular and any type of copycatting that goes on (and we are aware there is a lot) just reminds us we must be doing something right.


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