Designing Creative Conferences: Lessons from C2

Two guys walk into a conference. Not any two guys, Creative Executives from Cirque du Soleil and Sid Lee (a leading creative agency). 
The pair thought that the conference, like so many around the world, was boring. Presentation after long presentation, scheduled coffee breaks and a sea of people that were not stimulated enough to actually engage with each other. 
The two guys started brainstorming, surely, they could create a conference that was different – a conference that challenged the traditional concepts of how a business event ‘should’ be run? 
So, in 2011 they got together to create C2 Montreal. A conference unlike any other, that invited people to be inspired, to make valuable connections, to think creatively and to truly enjoy attending a conference. 
Seven years on and C2 is now renowned for being one of the most innovative and creative business conferences in the world.
But how do they do it? How do you make a conference more interesting and more valuable to the attendee? And, can all events benefit from the techniques they use?
We caught up with Martin Enault, CEO - Asia Pacific, C2 International, to learn a little more about the principles of C2 and take on some of his advice on how to create an engaging event. 

1. Consumer First Approach

“Have you ever met someone who is excited to spend a day on the trade show floor or attend an all-day conference?  It's not often”. 
Martin explained that to have a successful event you must take a consumer first approach. By this he means understanding what your attendees want and then adapting and designing experiences to match. 

For C2, it’s very much about creating immersive experiences, facilitating quality connections, encouraging creativity within the business arena. They do this in a number of ways, one of which is allowing attendees to design their own program. 
The program at C2 is not linear – guests can choose how they will get the most from attending. There are opportunities to sit and listen, connect with others or join a workshop session throughout the day, with guests able to design an experience that suits their objectives for attending. 
While a ‘choose your own adventure’ style program is not going to work for all conference programs, it is important to consider what your attendees want to gain from attending. If you can manage to understand that before designing your program, then you’ll be well on your way to delivering the goods. 

2. Borrow ideas from different industries

Choosing speakers from different industries that complement the ideas you’re trying to express at your event can make your program a lot richer and more interesting for attendees. 
How many times have you attended an industry conference to discover the panel of speakers are the same people you’ve heard time and again. 
Martin gave this example -  if you’re working in an industry that is currently being disrupted by technology or changing consumer behaviours, why not invite a leader from an industry (such as the music recording industry), that has already experienced disruption and learn how they dealt with it. What challenges did they face, how did they adapt and what lessons did they learn? 

3. Design environments to stimulate creativity 

C2 is well known for their Labs.

These workshop style sessions are hosted in unique environments which allow people to think outside the box and stimulate new ideas and connections.

Some of the Lab designs include the ball pit (self-explanatory), the nets or sky lab (where guests are suspended in the air), the cloud (guests are surrounded by a thick fog) and the dark room (a pitch-black room).

By hosting facilitated workshops within a unique environment, the team at C2 encourages attendees to open their minds to new ideas, act more confident when expressing their own thoughts and ultimately, have fun.

Once you inject the fun element, people often resort back to their childhood and find themselves thinking more creatively – free of conformity. 

Martin says that he’s yet to see anyone dive into the ball pit and not smile – even when they then start discussing complex business strategy.

Martin points out that by challenging attendees to think about business objectives in either a fun environment or a space that challenges them (e.g. being suspended up high or wandering around in the dark), it allows them to open their minds to being more creative.

Again, not every conference or meeting has the budget or ability to rig up a workshop in the sky, but the dark room workshop can be replicated anywhere. Close the door, block out the light and hey presto you have a unique and challenging environment for your next team brainstorming session.

By removing sight, you can open up your mind to creative solutions, be more confident in expressing your own views and your listening skills will be amplified to a new level.

Given the nature of these sorts of workshop sessions, Martin explains that it’s important to always have a facilitator involved to avoid going off track from the intended purpose.
C2 Creative Workshops
Clockwise from top left:  © Allen McEachern | © C2 | © C2 | © C2

4. Stimulate conversations

We all know how easy it is to attend an event and only talk to people you know. Or shy away from making connections with people you perceive to be “above you” or uninterested in you. 
One of the most exciting elements of C2 is their ‘brain dates’. Without getting to techy about the tech they use, it essentially allows you to connect with people that have similar interests or perhaps have information that you want. 
For example, say prior to the event you indicate that you have knowledge about making business connections in China, you might be matched with someone that wants to learn about Chinese markets. Likewise, you might indicate that you love fly fishing and might end up with a brain date with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company who also loves fly fishing.  
Brain dates are often held in interesting ways – while taking a walk in the rain and sharing an umbrella, taking a ride on an exercise bike, or enjoying a ride on a Ferris Wheel.
Martin also gives a great example of encouraging people to talk to those around them. “If you go to the bar at C2 and order a drink while tapping on your phone and not engaging with those around you, the bartender may give you the wrong drink and walk off. When you realise and try to get the bartender’s attention, they will ignore you. You might then call out or say something to the person next to you about the situation and only then, once you’ve engaged with the people around you, will the bartender return to remedy the situation”. It’s a crazy idea, but this is the level of detail the organisers at C2 go to to ensure that everyone at the conference is engaged. 

C2 Brain Dates
Clockwise from top left: © Jimmy Hamelin | © Arianne Bergeron | © Allen McEachern

5. Embrace flexibility

We mentioned earlier that when attending C2 you’re able to create your own program. There are networking sessions, think groups, presentations and talks happening all day. What you engage with and when is up to you. 
Likewise, the catering runs all day. There are no scheduled breaks and you can eat and drink whenever suits you. Grazing stations, food trucks and grab-and-go style catering options surely are the new way of catering at conferences. 
C2 Creative Catering Station
© Jimmy Hamelin

Final note…

C2 is a world leader in creating truly inspirational and engaging business events. While C2 Montreal is their main event, they also assist companies in designing one-off events and experiences on a smaller scale. 
Business events no longer should be a groan to attend. Conference organisers need to rethink the way they plan events. Start with the basics – what do your attendees want to gain from attending? From there it’s a matter of thinking about how you can deliver that in a way that doesn’t bore them to death. Shake it up -  create the unexpected and we’re positive you’ll see amazing results.  

*All images courtesy of C2. Individual photographers credited.
Header image © Felix Renaud