Don’t Just Talk Amongst Yourselves

How a global wellness meeting stays vibrant by cross-pollinating its attendees.

When Susie Ellis, chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Summit, sent an email announcement about the 2018 edition of the event — being held in Cesena, Italy, Oct. 6–8 — she included an ambitious goal. “We work to ensure that 50 percent of the attendees are first-time delegates,” Ellis wrote, “such as a CEO from a sector that is beginning to understand the wellness economy or representatives from a country that is embracing more facets of wellness.”

Attracting such a large percentage of new attendees is no easy task, and Ellis’ marketing team has an arguably more challenging job ahead of them on an annual basis. The summit only accepts C-suite participants (approximately 650 are expected to attend the 2018 summit), and the price tag is approximately $3,200. For most event organizers, retaining a loyal, year-after-year audience might seem like a more manageable approach. Ellis, though, isn’t like most event organizers. “I don’t really consider myself to be in the meeting-planning industry,” Ellis told Convene. “Honestly, I don’t even know about the typical ratio of new delegates to repeat participants. We’ve focused on creating our own path with the summit.”

That path began when she and her husband, Pete Ellis, a co-founder of the Global Wellness Summit, attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, more than a decade ago. At the time, the two were leading a spa company, and the experience in Davos left a big impression on them. “It was not
about selling,” she said. “It was about idea exchange. We wanted to model our summit after that in a smaller way with an invitation-only approach to attract a high-level audience.”

The event started as the Global Spa Summit. After a few years, Ellis said that one of the summit’s advisers, who was also a co-chair at Davos, pointed out that the brand was limiting the conversation. “He told us that we were talking too much amongst ourselves, and he pointed out the value of cross-pollinating. So we decided to make some creative decisions,” she said, including the new name. “Since that time, we’ve made a real effort to bring in new people from different industries and different countries.”

Ellis admitted that she is fortunate that their event is riding the crest of the wellness industry’s growth. At the end of 2015, the industry was valued at $3.72 trillion, and as more consumers focus on health and wellness, there are plenty of opportunities to attract attendees from outside the wellness sector. For example, in 2017, the summit included new research findings from the Global Wellness Institute, the organization’s non-profit arm, focusing on a unique sector: wellness in real-estate investment. “People in the real-estate industry have probably never been to a wellness summit,” Ellis said. “So we benefit from connecting the dots between wellness and new circles.”

In addition to reaching new business sectors, the summit’s host-destination cycle differs from Davos’ model of bringing leaders to the same place. “We are in a different country every year,” Ellis said. “That’s part of how we appeal to a new audience.”

Ellis also appeals to new local partners to help spread the word. For example, the summit is working with Italian-based fitness equipment manufacturer Technogym in advance of the 2018 event, which will be held at the company’s Cesena headquarters. “The decision to host the summit in a new country on a regular basis gives us an annual swell of people,” Ellis said, “who may not have even known about us.”

Being part of the Global Wellness Summit isn’t as simple as entering credit-card information on a registration page. Prospective attendees must submit a short application that explains why they want to come and what they feel they can contribute to the program. The application process does more than develop the attendee list. It also informs who will be on stage, too.

“Everyone on the attendee list is there to learn, but these are CEOs who have plenty of expertise to share, too,” Ellis said. “So we try to give attendees their own roles in the program. Some might moderate a session, sit on a panel, or host one of our lunch tables. We typically have more than one-third of the audience engaged in some type of leadership role.”

Once those new people are on site, the program is designed to create new connections. “Our entire team is dedicated to helping delegates make new contacts at each summit,” Ellis said, “not just spend time with people they already know.”

That philosophy plays out in the lunch program on the opening day of the summit, which includes one very specific set-up requirement. “Wherever we go, I insist that lunch happens at tables of six, and the tables have to be 48-inch rounds,” Ellis said. “At huge tables, you can only talk to the person on your left and your right. It’s impossible to have a conversation with the whole group. People have to be able to hear.”

That’s not only to enable polite meal conversations. The objective with the table arrangements is to ensure that everyone at a table will meet five new people. More importantly, they’re set up to gain new insights from each of those five people. The program includes 100 tables and 100 topics with one designated expert — many of whom are registered attendees themselves — at each table.

For example, the 2017 program included “Solving for Happiness: My Personal Story,” with the chief business officer from Google X; “What is the Fragrance and Flavor of Wellness?” with a vice president from International Flavors & Fragrances; “What Our Industry Could Do to Attract More Students to Go Into Careers,” with a professor from Switzerland, and a range of other niche subjects.

Seating is unassigned. Instead, there is a dash to claim preferred seats — similar to a game of musical chairs. “We don’t announce all the tables until the lunch is about to begin, so it’s a kind of scramble as people look for seats,” Ellis said. “But it doesn’t matter where you land. It’s going to be an interesting conversation.”

Whether meeting new contacts at lunch or talking in the educational sessions throughout the rest of the three-day program, Ellis makes sure that participants don’t need to bother handing out business cards. At the beginning of each summit, everyone receives a copy of The Delegate Directory, a book that contains photos, brief biographies, and contact information for all participants who have agreed — about 99 percent — to share their personal details. “An occasional keynote might opt out,” Ellis said, “but otherwise, people recognize that they are sharing information with their high-level peers. We make a strong effort to let everyone know that this information is only for personal, meaningful contact — not marketing blasts.”

Ellis’ efforts are paying off. She said that the summit’s numbers have increased each year, and of the approximately 650 participants expected in 2018, 325 will be at their first-ever summit. “We certainly have our database of past attendees, and a lot of them do come again,” Ellis said. “But I’ve experienced the repetitiveness of some gatherings, and we find that adding new voices is one of the most important pieces to success.”

Learn more about the Global Wellness Summit at

David McMillin

David McMillin is staff writer at PCMA.