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‘The Only KPI Is Happiness’

C2 Montreal International President Richard St-Pierre talks about what he means when he says he wants the business conference to touch attendees’ souls, failure, and how he builds teams that keep pushing the envelope.

Richard St-Pierre ‘The stage is secondary. The interaction is the primary thing.’

Convene sat down with C2 International President Richard St-Pierre in July, during Destinations International’s 2017 Annual Convention in Montréal, C2’s home and playground. St-Pierre had just given the audience of destination executives a glimpse into how C2 — an event that was launched in 2012, following the global economic downturn, as a way to make Montréal “shine” — has helped establish the city as a hotbed of business and innovation during its five-year history.

It had only been two short months since C2 Montréal 2017 had wrapped, and St-Pierre called the aftermath of another successful event a “scary moment.” Rather than basking in all of the positive feedback from the media and participants about how C2 2017 had once again exceeded expectations, he was feeling a lot of pressure: How will they set the bar even higher next year? Our question exactly.

How do you keep coming up with new ideas for a business event that is all about creativity?

Setting the bar higher often means more money and more constraints. Let’s face it, we don’t have more money the following year to make it bolder, higher. We’d love to, but there’s [ just] so much we can put into a single event. That constraint makes us very creative into how we reinvent components. Instead of saying we’re reinventing the entire event, we’re more reinventing a portion of the event.

For example, last year it was a great conference setting, but we said we have to reinvent the venue itself for the main conference, because we’re too traditional. That’s why we bought a Big Top, and now it’s a 360 [environment] with IMAX screens and everything. Now the expectation is we can’t go back to a normal room with concrete walls. We’re stuck a little bit with the success that we’ve had with the Big Top.

Were there any elements this year that you know you need to improve upon in 2018?

One of the failures of this year was to not have enough participatory activities. Yet we [increased the number of workshops and labs] fivefold, one year to the next. It’s kind of amazing. We were actually worried that we would have way too many, and that these activities would be empty.

It’s actually the reverse. Let’s face it, when you say we’re going to have a fivefold increase year over year and we still come up short, it’s not something that is natural. This year was an “aha” moment for us. It was certainly a disappointment for participants to not be able to participate [in labs and workshops] as much as they wanted. When I say that the main stage is 20 percent [of the program] and the rest is 80 percent, maybe we’ll have to go to 90 percent, which is very surprising. But I love it. That means that the labs, even the Sky Lab, we’ll need to push them into even bolder areas.

One idea this year was the Cake Lab, and mixing food with a business context was certainly very different. When we say we’re going to build a ball pit in the sky and we’re going to have moderated brainstorms, it kind of works. Why food? Where we’re going is that it’s exploring certain deeper verticals. That’s how we come up with ideas. Food is one. Energy might be another. Water and the environment might be another. We go back to our roots — what it is to be human. Ultimately we want to connect with the soul of the person. When we touch that, that’s when the real thing happens.

The soul is a source of inspiration, because that’s how we have brainstorms in electric boats on the canal, because humans like to be close to nature, to water. There’s a certain zen and calm that comes with water. [So we thought,] okay, how about a brainstorm on water, right? That’s how it came about. It’s not reading books, although that helps, but that’s how we go and delve and try to reinvent every year where we’re going.

Are these creative ways to interact what sets C2 apart?

I don’t know if you’ve been to Davos, but Davos is considered the pinnacle of a business gathering, let’s face it. They’re doing an excellent job at this, but it’s absolutely boring. Everybody says so, 100 percent. The thing is, if you go there, you’ll meet the right people that you need to meet for your entire year. This notion of, okay, meeting interesting people in an interesting setting — that’s what we’ve combined. We make sure that people talk to each other.

Let’s take TED as a second example — an absolutely fantastic job they’ve done over the past 30 years. The clarity, professionalism of the content is extraordinary. I hope that one day we’ll be that good, right? I don’t think we’re there yet. But TED is a monologue. Their tagline says it: “Ideas worth spreading.” Ideas worth spreading is a one-way street. You have an absolutely amazing and inspiring speaker, but they’re evangelizing a crowd. When that crowd is asking to speak amongst themselves, where is their voice reverting back to the speaker? That’s why we’re so different.

I just gave you two examples of absolutely pure monologues, and [they] did work, because it was a flavor of the way of doing it in the 20th century, but in the 21st century, we need the dialogue. The stage is the secondary thing. The interaction is the primary thing.

What do you look for in team members to help C2 keep pushing the envelope?

We have people taking care of the labs, people taking care of the master classes, and people taking care of the speakerships, people taking care of the customer experience. These are the groups, or the segregation — the split that we have.

The other thing is that in all those groups, there are mostly Millennials that have no background in the space we’re asking them to work with, and 60 percent are women. That’s kind of important. I’m not talking about gender equality at all. If I’m talking, however, that we have to touch the soul of people, the sensitivity that women are recognized for, we want that to be reflected in the event that we have. We do not pick a woman to give them preference, but if the person we’re trying to hire has a greater sensitivity to the topic that we’re trying to address, of course we’re going to hire him or her.

The combination of those two things results in that most of my team — and I’m by far the oldest of the group, sorry to say — don’t know what’s impossible. Putting people in a chair close to a ceiling or putting them in a cloud where they don’t even see each other because of the fog is something that if you’re talking to more traditional people, even me, I would not come up with those ideas. But they say, “That looks interesting. It adds to our purpose. We think people will like it. They need to be happy. Let’s try it.”

There’s a lot of risk taking at C2. How do you approach failure?

C2 is a multi-track event. There’s no way a participant can do everything. They have to pick and choose what they want to do. That’s also a metaphor for us — a reflection of society. You cannot have it all. You have to select what you want to focus on.

Part of how we embrace failure is to make it disappear. We accept that the failures are there, but they mostly go unnoticed. Because of this multi-track experience, there might be this little thing that didn’t work, but it’s so easy for us to cover them up, not necessarily to hide them, but to make them ow within the overall event that they simply dis-appear for participants. Yeah, there are many flaws that we have and hiccups and so on, like any major event of that scale, but we do a pretty good job of hiding them, and the criteria of “will it work or not” is not the criteria for decision making.

So your criteria is, will it touch your soul?

Soul might be too philosophical. That’s a word I like using, because I think that’s really the reflection of what we’re trying to do. I’m often asked, what is the key performance indicator that you use? Everybody expects I’d say the number of delegates, how many heads on pillows we’re going to have — the standard metrics.

I say the only KPI I can really think of that is really relevant is happiness. Whatever we think of doing, do we think that people will have this warm, fuzzy feeling in their gut when they go back on the plane? Will they be happy because they came? If the answer is yes, most probably that’s what we need to do.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.