Skift Take

Nowadays, luxury travel is all about discovering new frontiers. It's not just about expanding physical and geographic boundaries. The travel cognoscenti are "brain dating" around the world in order to stretch their minds.

First came TED in 1984. Soon thereafter, in 1987, there was South by Southwest.

Now, after a bit of a lull, thought leadership conferences are popping up all over the map, with Vivid Sydney, C2 Montréal, and Light City Baltimore launching in the last decade.

These conferences, which meld creative components with thought-provoking programming, deliver high-end visitors, while providing a host city with the opportunity to develop, solidify, or refine its brand.

According to J. Walter Thompson’s Future 100: 2018 forecast, “Events like these indicate the increased appetite for thought leadership and innovation among consumers. These experiential events combine self-improvement with entertainment, networking, and access to today’s influencers, who are often tech leaders or startup founders, rather than traditional celebrities.”

Vancouver thought the sector important enough to woo TED to the British Columbian metropolis. Working with Destination Canada, the city developed a two-year financial incentive package to entice TED to relocate from Long Beach, California.

“The average economic impact for TED from 2014-2017 was $3.8 million per year, but the true value far exceeds that as the TEDsters are distinguished and influential leaders who can help share Vancouver’s appeal as an incredible convention destination, great place to do business, and an unforgettable place to visit,” Tourism Vancouver said.

According to Dave Gazley, vice president of meetings and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, most TED visitors stay downtown in four and five-star hotels, meaning that “Vancouver also benefits from the affluent crowd in that people will come back here on their own and experience the city on vacation,” given that the TED schedule doesn’t allow for much city exploration time.

South by Southwest, or SXSW as it is widely known as, celebrates its 31st anniversary in March. It’s grown from what was primarily a music festival into one big event made of music, film, interactive, sustainability, and education tracks.

“The interactive conference has the largest per capita spend, between the individuals who may stay at more expensive hotels and the corporations spending more money to host events at ancillary venues around the city,” said Ben Loftsgaarden, a partner in Austin-based Greyhill Advisors, which analyzes the economic impact of SXSW.

“One of the things that has made SXSW so successful.” said Loftsgaarden, ‘is that while the organizers realize it’s largely about networking, to keep people coming back, you have to make it fun.”

Perhaps that’s why so many conferences seem to be melding elements of creativity and commerce. Witness Vivid Sydney.

What started as a modest light festival ten years ago, designed in part to attract visitors to Sydney during the winter, has become a huge draw for tourists. The 23-day show has grown from 255,000 attendees in 2009 to 2.33 million in 2017.

Destination NSW took over the event two years into its run and started transforming it into what it is today: a festival of light, music and ideas. According to Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW and executive producer of Vivid Sydney, the pivot to thought leadership “reinforces Sydney’s position as the creative services hub of the Asia Pacific region….and builds access to global markets.”

Chipchase said that most international travelers stay at high-end hotels and extend their stays to travel throughout New South Wales and beyond. “The international luxury traveler comes because it’s unique. These are people who want to learn and immerse themselves in creativity.” What excites them is “what they are going to learn, who they will meet and how they can be inspired.”

Moreover, as Sydney looks to attract even more high-end spenders, Chipchase believes Vivid is the perfect brand ambassador. “Vivid is a reflection of who we are: beautiful, sexy, outrageous, optimistic and fun.”

Indeed, the branding benefit is one of the intangible elements that hosting thought leadership conferences can provide.

“SXSW is an invaluable brand that has helped define Austin as the center of creativity and commerce, a community that is innovative, entrepreneurial and cool,” said Michael W. Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

But to be successful at brand-building, according to Tourism Vancouver’s Gazley, an event must have “unbelievable, compelling content that is meaningful to people,” while also aligning with a city’s DNA.

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Tags: events, luxury, meetings, meetings and events, skift cities

Photo credit: Director of research and development for Jigsaw Yasmin Green speaks onstage at the Interactive Keynote during 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 14, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Mindy Best / Getty Images for SXSW

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