Ideas and Energy Collide at Collision

Behind the scenes at the fast-growing Collision technology conference, which this year moved from Las Vegas to New Orleans — and included startups, investors, heat maps, Jazz Fest, and pub crawls.

Collision_topIt took just a few steps onto the show floor at the Collision technology-startup conference to see where its name comes from. Hall H of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — which hosted Collision 2016 on April 25–28, right in the middle of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — was nothing but collisions. People, ideas, product demos, startup pitches, robots — all happily bumping together. We’ve written previously in Convene about how Collision painstakingly matches startups with investors, but it was quite something to see that playing out in person.

Produced by Web Summit — itself a Dublin-based tech conference that has expanded into a portfolio of events that also includes RISE in Hong Kong, SURGE in Bengaluru, India, and MoneyConf in Madrid — Collision debuted in Las Vegas in 2014 with 1,500 attendees, and drew 7,500 people the following year, also in Vegas. The show moved to New Orleans this year, with attendance topping 10,000. The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted Convene as part of a press trip built around Collision, arranging for us not only to attend the conference but also to interview Sinead Murphy, director of live events for Web Summit, just off the show floor. Here’s an edited version of our conversation with Murphy:

What made you pick New Orleans for Collision 2016? We talked to a lot of the folks in our community and in our network, and everybody fed back that New Orleans was a really burgeoning- type scene. And we love music and jazz and culture as a company anyway. It just seemed like a pretty awesome fit for us, plus the convention bureau was really instrumental in getting us here as well. We’ve been speaking to them for a while, and all the planets aligned at the right time to bring us here. We’re delighted that we did.

How does Collision differ from Web Summit’s other events? Aside from location and the community that is at the event, we do try and employ best practices at each of them. Some of the templates that we look at are largely the same. And then we just tweak that everywhere we go. There are definite cultural differences that come into play for each of the events. Less so from Europe to the U.S. than from, say, doing our RISE event in Hong Kong or our SURGE event in India. It differs in terms of the stage content, in terms of what we’re putting on for that group, but a lot of the mechanics are similar between our European events and our U.S. events.

Collision_Sinead Murphy
Sinead Murphy (center), Web Summit’s director of live events, during a media tour of Collision 2016.

The general setup is about the same? In terms of layout and everything we do, again, it’s just tweaking and changing it. Usually we set our stages for about 30 percent of our total attendee group, and that’s worked well in terms of finding the balance of how we design our stages and the capacity for them. 

When we went to RISE [in Hong Kong] last year, we were really surprised — I’d say about 70 percent wanted to be at our stages at all times. They were very studious. They would sit down and they would not leave for the day; they would just take notes. As opposed to here, where you have people who are going to specific talks, then they’re going to go off and have a meeting, then they’re going to go to something else.

Is it a challenge to balance this really big, open-environment show floor with the need to not completely overwhelm your attendees? There’s a sweet spot that you want to hit, absolutely. Our rule of thumb when we’re looking at it is, every attendee, we’ll give them like 1.5 square meters per person. We have GoPros in the ceilings at all our events, and we will look at heat maps after the event and we’ll see densities in areas. So we’ll sit down after this event and we’ll go, “Okay, these were particularly dense areas. Let’s look at how we can make those a little bit freer for people to have meetings at their stands next year.” We’re constantly improving and constantly reviewing the last event, and looking how we’re going to do that better next year. There’s a little bit of an art form to it that we’re tweaking all the time.

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More than 2,000 attendees participated in a New Orleans pub crawl on the opening night of Collision.

Did you specifically time Collision 2016 to coincide with Jazz Fest? Absolutely. And that wasn’t even from a personal perspective. [Laughs.] Yeah, we’ve been working closely with Jazz Fest. Some of our tickets are bundled with Jazz Fest, so you could buy a ticket for Collision and also for Jazz Fest and experience the whole New Orleans experience through the week. Absolutely, we want people to come to Collision and stay for Jazz Fest.

Other than Jazz Fest, how are you incorporating the local culture into the conference? We’ve got, obviously, a lot of our focus is the conference piece, but the Night Summit is where all of the real business happens a lot of the time, so we program a lot of activities for our attendees at night. We did a pub crawl on Monday night, which I think over 2,000 of our attendees attended. It wasn’t one pub crawl — we split them out into 60 groups. That’s just a nice way to kick off the event. We take all the names, take all the interests of the attendees, and we have an algorithm designed to actually optimize the group that you’re going to be doing your pub crawl with, so you’ll have similar interests and you’ll have a good mix of gender and age and those things to get a good cross-section of the group going on that opening night. Then lots of other night events and dinners. That’s an important part of the event and how we incorporate the culture, because New Orleans is such a wonderful, warm, fun town. We really want to make the most of that for our attendees as well.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.