C2 may be past the point of reinventing itself as it looks to export its brand of experiential business conferences around the world. Yet, the tweaks it has made to its hallmark event demonstrate the work to scale its interactive festival as its popularity surges.
C2 Montreal, the growing and evolving innovation conference turned carnival, is looking to expand globally while refining the core elements of its design.
Held each year in a modular warehouse south of downtown Montreal, this year’s edition of the conference expanded the scope of its sessions and activities to ensure that attendees were able to access as many activities and workshops as possible.
This sort of choose-your-own-adventure event design is a major challenge, and this year’s iteration was driven by the realization that there were simply not enough opportunities for attendees to experience every element without waiting on long lines.
As the so-called festivalization of events continues, C2 is looking for ways to export its formula without compromising on the event experience.
“Festivalization is just a new fad for the event world to become more relevant,” said Richard St-Pierre, CEO of C2. “Everyone almost at C2 does not have an event background, me first. So, why? Because we wanted to reinvent what a moment in time was. So, if we simply tweak what an event should be, well, you don’t get this.”
Skift spoke to St-Pierre on the first day of last week’s annual C2 Montreal event about the challenges of reinventing the innovation conference, coping with growing pains, and the company’s growing global aspirations.
This conversation has been edited for accuracy and length.
Skift: As this conference has grown in recent years, how has your thinking on the variety of programming available changed?
Richard St-Pierre: Well, our intent is not to be bigger, but better. I know it’s kind of a stereotype almost, but the whole purpose we have here is to create a dialogue. If you look at all the conferences, trade shows, and stuff, they’re all about monologues. There’s somebody on stage that spills out their truth of some sort. It might not be wrong, but you have to listen to the oracle, and then you’re left on your own to figure out what it means?
So, we don’t just strive for that way of thinking. We say the participants are intelligent people. They have a voice, they want it heard, and if they interact with each other, it’s gonna change the landscape of how those people actually operate. I always use the example of disruption. Everybody talks in the market about disruption, transformation, etc. Then, you have articles, books … I mean, more than you can even think of about it; yet, what does that mean for me?
What is disruption for me as a corporation? Well, guess what, people come here and they figure out part of that answer, because they’re in labs, they’re in master classes, they’re in workshops, either in groups or alone. We help them just that little tad more so they can relate to a concept and apply it to their own problem. And that changes completely the dynamic of people that come.
Skift: I mean, that’s the huge problem with the traditional conference, right? It’s like, there’s the idea that there are people who know better, and they’re up in front of you with the light on them, but the reality is that the people who are attending all have pieces of their own perspective and their own specialties.
So C2, it’s an inversion of the traditional thing. Because instead of having one giant thing, you do have the Big Top or whatever, but you have all these smaller things that are actually interactive, to use the buzzword, experiential.
St-Pierre: It certainly resonates. You could use however many stats you want, and I can tell you, really, that the actual numbers that we have three times the repeat rate of attendees than any conference around the world. Right? So, but why do they do come? It’s because they see value for themselves. If you look at our C2 logo, you notice, obviously, it’s missing pieces. Guess what? It’s because the pieces, that’s the people completing it. So, we’re a platform. We’re not telling you what to think or how you should think, but by creating this dialogue among hundreds, if not thousands of companies together, that circle becomes complete. And hopefully, it will last almost a year, so we come back the following year.
Skift: I mean, that’s modest, you guys are in Melbourne now, taking it global a little bit.
St-Pierre: A little bit, in a big way. In the past 12 months, we’ve been to 20 cities around the world. That’s a lot, and that includes Dubai, Amsterdam, and Ghana. So, we did do something in Africa this year. But these were either smaller-scale or corporate events that we supported. So, we’re not an event planner. The first time somebody asks us to be planning an event for them, we’re gonna say no. Because what we’re talking here is a moment in time where that dialogue and that transformation actually happens, as opposed to just talk about it.
So, if a company comes and sees us and says, “Hey, I want to jazz up my event,” we say no. If they say, “I want to transform my event,” then possibly. I’ll take Michelin as an example. They’ve been doing the boring version of their mobility conference for 18 years. And they were about to pull the plug three years ago. When I met with them, I said, “Well, it’s because guess what? Nobody wants to hear about tires, right? But, if you do a conference about sustainable mobility and how getting from point A and point B is not just about cars, it’s about technology, it’s about smart cities, it’s about your impact on the environment, all those things. That will draw a crowd.”
Well, guess what? We did it here last year. 4,000 people came, year one. We’re doing it again, same thing. So, there’s a thirst in the market for those type of events that C2 fills quite adequately. Every year, we start with a blank slate. We say you should reinvent yourself; guess what, we apply that rule to us, too.
Skift: The festivalization of events is a trend we’ve been tracking for a few years now. How do you look at how the industry is evolving?
St-Pierre: Festivalization is just a new fad for the event world to become more relevant. Everyone almost at C2 does not have an event background, me first. So, why? Because we wanted to reinvent what a moment in time was. So, if we simply tweak what an event should be, well, you don’t get this. And a few metrics help as well. We have a bit more than 100 speakers because people want, they need, inspiration and it helps get the juices flowing.
But there are more than 40,000 spots in collaborative experiences that people will be involved in. So, we’re not talking, then, about everyone you see here as visitors. We call them participants for a reason because they really participate. And this is still a business conference, yet we’re gonna be, likely, the number one trending Twitter handle in Canada. Last year, we hit the 300 million [mention] mark in social media.
How often do you hear of a business conference about commerce and creativity knocking the socks off any other news in the country?
Skift: Well, I mean, you also design the experience each year to be shareable, Instagram-able. Come on, you have to think about how this all looks and how people wanna share how it looks. But that’s the just what’s on top of everything, ’cause there’s so much underneath.
You referred to the 40,000 spots of people doing stuff. How do you think about every single time people are set up to interact with these experiences?
St-Pierre: Like I said, it’s organized chaos; that is, we will not say, “You need to go there at that time,” but we think that there’s gonna be 100 people that will wanna go there, right? So it’s reverse engineer: what do the people want, and then you reverse engineer so you deliver that.
You don’t have to sign up. So, when you sign up, you jump the queue, right? So, if there are 30 spots free at whatever lab or workshop, you’re still gonna get in even if you didn’t sign up.
The second thing is that we had the demand for this. Four years ago now, that 40,000 spots was 450.
Well, last year, to be quite frank, we had tripled the previous year. Tripled. And we said, “We’re gonna be so safe, that our number one worry is, wow, it’s gonna be empty. People won’t come. There are so many spots.” Guess what? We were criticized, and I think rightfully so because of [long lines].
This year, we said, “Okay. 20,000 we thought was the high-water mark. Let’s double. 40,000.” But we had to figure out a mechanism to ensure that people would be sorted through. Thus, the registration. But then again, if there are two spots free at a workshop and you’re not registered, you’ll get in.
Skift: I was talking with some of my colleagues here, and they have no idea what to do right now. It’s overwhelming, right?
St-Pierre: Well, that’s the first few hours of C2. We want to bring everyone to the, basically, the frontier of their comfort zone. We don’t want to cross that line. I don’t know if you saw the lab just don’t there that’s called Primal…
Skift: With the helmet? [pictured above]
St-Pierre: How stupid must you feel to be in that helmet? I mean, let’s face it, you don’t post that picture on your Twitter feed most probably, right? And why? Because this is taking you a bit at the limit of your comfort zone. Yet, the lab, there’s a queue to go in. Because that’s what people expect, to be pushed a little bit more.
If you go to Transparent, it’s only mirrors in a room, right? However, people are asked questions in that room that are annoying questions. So, one of the questions I know that they’re asking in there, you put 12 people in a room, and you ask, “Okay, you don’t know anything about the people around you, but who would you start a business with? Imagine this.”
So, the people are all aggregating around one person, and leaving out three in the other corner. Holy shit. The reality of just facing the mechanics of what I just said makes you acutely aware that even simple business decisions are based on human perception of the situation.
Skift: How do you look at branded hotel meeting spaces as something, as you go global, to get the brand out there?
St-Pierre: Our goal is to have one branded C2 on each continent. So, Montreal is one C2, Melbourne is the second one. Europe is gonna get one, Middle East, Latin America, each one. Then what happens the other 362 days a year, if this is three days?
So, that’s what with the inception of this C2 space at the top of the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel [in Montreal]? Well, guess what? People are taking notice, and they say, “Hey, I would like to have a C2 space.” Right? So, we just signed a deal for a decade, 10 years, with the Melbourne Convention Center. That is half a million square feet, nothing like this one which is 6,000. The other one is half a million square feet of meeting spaces that we’re gonna transform with the C2 DNA. And our goal there would be to have about 20 of those spaces around the world.
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Photo credit: The Primal lab at this year's C2 Montreal conference. The company is looking to expand its conference offerings around the globe. Skift