Tourism leaders head to Long Beach to figure out ways of replicating success in Vancouver

The Vancouver Sun
Published February 25, 2013

Original Source: The Vancouver Sun

The TED conference, the most powerful and influential ideas transfer conference in the world, starts today in Southern California, for the last time in its nearly 30 year history. This time next year it will be opening under the roof of the cavernous Vancouver Convention Centre, a bold and risky experiment in broadening a global brand already so powerful that the mere word “TED” sets people talking of breaking science and dreaming of startling social discoveries.

And both watching over and participating in these proceedings at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center is a small vanguard of Canadians preparing to help TED’S once-improbable exodus from a state considered both the bedrock of American technological innovation and the birthplace of TED’S innovative brand for putting ideas in front of the people with the power to make them happen.

There are folks here from the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Convention Centre, Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office, even hoteliers whose ringside five-star hotels will host attendees whose names are synonymous with power, influence and change. Over the next five days these visitors will try to figure out how to capture the magic of an intimate theatre setting TED concocted to make that idea transfer happen.

“Our relationship with TED is a partnership. We didn’t just buy a conference, we didn’t just lure a conference to Vancouver, we developed an alignment of our brand of Vancouver and Canada with the brand called TED,” said Greg Klassen, senior vice-president of marketing for the Canadian Tourism Commission.


“This is about knowing what the expectations are, not having any illusions of what things are, and taking everything that TED and Long Beach have done extremely well and build on that. We don’t want to be trying to guess. It is about minimizing hiccups,” explained Tourism Vancouver CEO Rick Antonson.

There are other Canadians here, too. Invited speakers like freshman university students Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, whose discovery of Fraser River microbes capable of breaking down plastics has turned heads sideways. Vancouver architect Michael Green, whose argument that tall wood skyscrapers offer a partial solution to climate change, has craned heads upwards. TED “fellows” like Genevieve von Petzinger, whose research into the geometric shapes of the world’s oldest prehistoric art, has turned heads to look behind us.

Big TED, as the Long Beach conference has become known amid the proliferation of franchised and licensed TEDx events around the world, is as big as they come. A congress powered by the biggest names, big money and even bigger ambitions and ideals, it has for 29 years sought to share, as it says, “ideas worth spreading.” Every year its organizers based in both New York and Vancouver, seek out the best underreported and potentially transformative ideas in the world.

For five days they then place those ideas and their authors in front of 1,400 or more business, political and entertainment elite for short-burst talks.

The attendees are those capable of paying the astronomical entrance fee of $7,500 a ticket and meeting a vetting process through a written essay. Throughout the conference there are special invitation-only dinners and events where these ideas are probed, prodded, challenged, defended and sometimes acted upon. There’s also “TED University”, a morning session of farm team speakers who hope to be someday invited to talk on the big stage.

The talks ultimately aren’t the private domain of industrialists and philanthropists. With little regard to proprietary license TED’S owner, the non-profit Sapling Foundation, unleashes them on the world through social media, YouTube, Netflix and a powerful array of selected media. They’re available for people to watch, poke, prod and ruminate over all on their own. Since TED began in 2006 to post more than 1,200 of its talks online, they have been viewed more than a billion times.

But it is still the boots on the ground, the handshakes at dinner, the eyeball-to-eyeball conversations that can make the ideas germinate and produce, says Green, who has spoken both at a TEDx event and at the TED talent show in Vancouver.


“It is not just about going and seeing speakers, it is about the breaks in between when you go and talk to other people attending and talk about what you are learning,” said Green, who developed and makes freely available under a Creative Commons license a new form of technology for building tall wood buildings.

“That’s the really exciting part of about this (conference). You have to have the people who can make this real. Boy, when you look at the guest list, when you see who’s there besides the CEO of Apple, who is not there, I don’t know who else you could add to the list who is influential, other than the President. Now, what organization in the world can bring together that kind of audience? Or that range of influence?”

This year the tag line for this last Long Beach conference is “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.” In addition to identifying speakers through its normal channels, TED held a talent search in 14 countries last year. It received 293 submissions from those events, including 21 in Vancouver last May. Of the 78 speakers on TED’s main stage this year, 33 came from the talent search. Three come from the Vancouver event.

Wang and Yao, who graduated from Magee secondary school in Vancouver last year, are part of that young set TED wants to show off. They’re joining other young innovators like 15-year-old Jack Andraka of Maryland, who developed and patented a paper cancer detector with a stunningly high rate of success. Green is part of the undiscovered, those whose ideas are new and innovative, but which perhaps haven’t yet achieved broad social acceptance. And people like Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, a “de-extinction pioneer” from whose long work in DNA collection could lead to repopulating earth with animals once considered extinct, represent the wise.

“TED has changed the nature of meetings and conventions because they have changed the way content is delivered and repurposed,” said Claire Smith, a vice-president at the Vancouver Convention Centre. “The whole sense of small inspiration and thought-provoking delivery of sessions in short bites, to me, has revolutionized our industry.”


Not everyone likes TED’s idea of keeping conference fees high and selecting which videos it posts online. The cries of elitism have even caused TED to post a defence entitled “Is TED elitist?” on its website, with the predictable answer that no, it isn’t.

When TED announced two weeks ago that it was moving to Vancouver, one Vancouver columnist opined the conference was more likely to descend into “new-agey mumbo-jumbo futurism” than be a forum for exploring ideas.

But there are also those who believe that while TED may be elitist, it is so only in the effort to achieve a broader public goal.

“TED is of course an elitist organization, no doubt about it,” says Ken Coach, a Vancouver media trainer and presentation coach who uses TED talks in his work.

“The price charged means that 90 per cent who want to go, can’t. That’s the definition of elitist. But I would say it isn’t a bad thing. It is still democratic in that it puts its material out for the world to see. Because it is elitist, it allows a lot of us to be exposed to ideas that we otherwise would not see.”

Green says TED suffers from the penchant for people to not revel in others’ success.

“We see that in our actors and in our musicians. We let them get big and then we find reasons to criticize them,” he said, “With TED, I think that’s what happens. They’ve become a very successful organization doing something really meaningful for the world and now people want to find the counterpoint.”

This is not the TED Conference of the Canadians, yet. But not far off the lips of many of the 1,200 attendees will be the question the Canadian vanguard knows is being asked: Just why the heck Vancouver, and why does TED have to move in the first place?

After three increasingly comfortable decades in California, TED and its powerful attendees needed an international kick in the pants, TED’S curator Chris Anderson obliquely suggested. “In Vancouver, we found a special combination of things we didn’t find anywhere else and it got us really excited. It is an amazing city which is reflective of the values people hold.” Anderson said. “There is a feeling of looking forward, a commitment to excellence, of innovation and sustainability. Just a bustling energy, which is thrilling.”

The Vancouver Sun’s Jeff Lee will report all week from the TED2013 conference in Long Beach, California, and blog daily at