Knowledge Hubs

TED’s Vancouver Encore

After three decades of holding its groundbreaking annual conference in California, TED announced in 2013 that it would move the event, along with most of its staff and infrastructure, to Vancouver the following year.


TED cited the Pacific Northwestern city’s “thriving culture of innovation” as fueling the move — and in doing so, cemented the destination as a first-tier nexus for ideas, technology, and culture.

The partnership between TED and Vancouver has not been without its learning curves — but two years in, it’s bearing fruit on both sides. In March, Convene had the opportunity to participate in a TED2015-inspired press trip hosted by Tourism Vancouver that provided a glimpse into how the conference is influencing the city, and vice versa.


If you’ve ever visited the Vancouver Convention Centre, you’ve probably had your jaw drop at least once. Airy and angular, the LEED Platinum–certified facility is perched on the edge of Vancouver Harbor, and soaring floor-to-ceiling windows provide arresting views of sea, mountains, and sky. Public art garnishes the center’s concourses, and its roof is made up of six acres of native grasses and plants that insulate the space.

Yet architect David Rockwell, who custom-designed the TED theater for the conference’s Vancouver debut last year, chose to seal off those views for the event. The theater was built within the center’s 45,000-square-foot ballroom, enclosed in its own dramatically lit cocoon where the speaker was never more than 80 feet from audience members. It’s one element of TED’s intense curation of every detail of the attendee experience — from views and lighting to sound, food, and even demographics.

“It’s the next generation of event design,” said Craig Lehto, the center’s assistant general manager, as he led a walking tour alongside Vice President of Sales and Marketing Claire Smith, CMP, the morning after TED wrapped. Workers in hardhats had already carted away chunks of the wooden theater from the ballroom, but Lehto’s and Smith’s intimate knowledge of the setup hinted at their intense collaboration with TED. “[The theater] is where TED is pushing the boundaries,” Lehto said.

The conference’s move to Vancouver wasn’t without its growing pains. TED’s director of events, Janet McCartney, had told our group earlier in the trip, “Everything at TED changes all of the time” — referring to her team’s penchant for adjusting their plans right up until the conference begins. “There’s no manual to produce an event of this scale.”

And scale is the operative word. The modular TED theater is so massive that it couldn’t be brought in through any of the center’s 32 loading bays. Instead, Smith said, “we had to design a new loading bay.” TED’s unique power, lighting, security, and dietary requirements mean constant adaptation as well. For TED2015, center chef Blair Rasmussen created at least 250 new dishes.

The five-day conference, which includes not just daily TEDTalks but events throughout the city, electrifies Vancouver with buzz — and discourse. “Virtually every TED speaker … asks us to think about the human condition,” Tourism Vancouver CEO Ty Speer said as he introduced a TED simulcast at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue earlier in the week. “In this busy world, there’s far too little time to think.”


Vancouver itself is no slouch when it comes to innovative ideas, world-class cuisine, or CSR in action. Each day that we ventured out from the European-style, 397-room Sutton Place Hotel — a favorite of visiting celebrities — we were at turns inspired, thunderstruck by views, or plied with food. A walking tour of social enterprises in the transitional Downtown Eastside neighborhood — such as East Van Roasters, a chocolate shop and café that employs women recovering from addiction — was juxtaposed with an impeccable Belgian-inflected feast in the cozy private event space of Chambar. Visits to a few other eateries — L’Abattoir, brunch hotspot Café Medina, and see-and-be-seen oyster bar Boulevard — spotlighted Vancouver’s imaginative dining scene.

Some of that spirit of creativity stems from the city’s rich Aboriginal and Asian culture. “Vancouver is arguably one of the most Asian cities outside of Asia,” Amber Sessions, Tourism Vancouver’s manager of travel and trade media relations, said over an antioxidant-packed tasting menu at MARKET by Jean-Georges inside the Shangri-La Hotel. Earlier that day, we had visited the Skwachays Lodge, a groundbreaking boutique hotel whose 18 rooms are adorned with paintings and murals created by Aboriginal artists.

And on the macro level, few locales can boast such intense natural beauty, which was on display during both a helicopter ride over the city, courtesy of SKY Helicopters, and a rainy bike ride along the city’s sea wall with Josh Bloomfield of Cycle City Tours. For a first-time visitor, it seemed like TED couldn’t have chosen a more ideal place for “ideas that matter” to take root. As we watched the theater come down, piece by piece, Smith told us it would be gone within 36 hours to make room for the 15,000 attendees of the Vancouver International Auto Show — a markedly different event, but one that mattered just as much to the city.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.