Imagine a business conference where round tables are swapped out for swingsets flying high above the conference floor. In lieu of catering service, on-site restaurants serve inventive dishes from cargo containers.
Traditional decor like draperies and floral arrangements are succeeded by mesmerizing, high-tech video mapping. It may sound like fiction, but it’s what you’ll find at C2 Montreal, one of the world’s most innovative and imaginative business conferences. It’s held each May at Arsenal Montreal, an art gallery where thousands of leaders, creatives and thinkers from around the globe exchange ideas on commerce and creativity. T
he brainchild of two CEOs, Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre and Sid Lee’s Jean-Francois Bouchard, C2 Montreal was created six years ago to reinvent the way industries convene, and to put Montreal on the map as a hub of innovation and creativity. Planners who attend can’t help but wonder about the secret behind C2 Montreal’s imaginative approach. To satisfy your curiosity, we chatted with Martin Enault, chief operating officer of C2, who shared behind-the-scenes details about the event and gave us a glimpse into the future of C2.
What does C2 aim to do?
C2 was founded on the premise of mixing different types of people and understanding that innovation happens best when you mix those who might not necessarily talk to one another. When you put these people together in a room, you see different perspectives and ideas that bring you outside your comfort zone and make finding new innovations and solutions more probable.
How do you come up with such inspiring ideas year after year?
We do this in the same way we do for our attendees: [We take] people from different industries, backgrounds and environments [and mix them together]. It’s not as complex as most people think.
What challenges come with planning C2?
Finances are one of the biggest challenges with as much as we do. We stretch dollars extremely well and do a lot more with every dollar than most people. We don’t give crazy budgets to our teams; we make them try to find solutions that are more effective, not necessarily more expensive. Even then, doing an event the scale of C2 Montreal costs upward of $12 million. An event of that scale and with that budget in Montreal, and even in Canada, in our field is unheard of.
Do sponsorships help ease the burden?
We refuse to do traditional sponsorships. Everything we do with partners is custom activation based on their needs. We don’t take any shortcuts and don’t sell client data. We build C2 by making phone calls, traveling the world and shaking people’s hands one at a time.
What goes into the setup of C2?
Building the event is definitely not easy or simple. We use existing infrastructure in ways, but we push it to an extreme that has never been done. [It can take] quite a few engineers, architects and a production team working for months on a solution. Then we [need] permits and approvals and [to ensure safety]. We do everything with a carbon-neutral approach, so all of that together makes everything we build extremely complex.
What precautions have to be taken to ensure these out-there setups don’t accidentally cause harm?
Everything needs to be as secure as a permanent theme park. The people we work with for our installations are riggers who either work with Cirque du Soleil or another major organization. Their usual job is adding netting and rigging equipment that can sustain the most extreme conditions, but what we do with them is quite simple because people don’t swing all that much—and they don’t jump from 50 feet up into a net. We always have two different riggers who specialize in checking the equipment on-site and inspect everything five times a day during the event.
How do you keep up with attendees’ expectations that each year will be grander than the last?
That is becoming more challenging every year. We’ve been preaching for the last six years for people to become more creative and innovative, and the rate at which people say they want to be more creative and innovative has grown exponentially in the last 18 months. People want more. They want to be challenged; they want to learn. They don’t want to limit themselves to their field of business. Being able to keep up with that is a big challenge for us.
What do you do when a new idea fails or doesn’t go according to plan?
We don’t see failure as 100 percent bad. We do everything we can to avoid it, but we know at least 15 to 20 percent of what we try won’t work as well as we intended when we put it in the live environment and add the human element to it. We try things that are too bold and crazy that you shouldn’t necessarily try on the first attempt, but we still do it. It doesn’t always work, but as long as most of what we do does, then we see it as a success.
The C2 brand is expanding beyond Montreal. What does the future of C2 look like?
We’re looking at C2 in three different verticals. The first is adding more events like C2 Montreal. Our plan is to have up to seven globally. Our first Australia event, C2 Melbourne, is Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 this year. [That] will be our second event. The second vertical is one we’ve been doing for the last couple of years, which is private, tailored events for corporations. We’ve worked [on events for] Microsoft and Google. We basically curate, create and operate those types of events, and we’ve been quite successful. The third vertical is permanent spaces. Late this fall, we are opening Espace, a permanent C2 space accommodating up to 220 people, on the top floor of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth in Montreal. It is designed and inspired in the same way we do our event and will enable planners to make their events more interactive and engaging without having to create something from scratch like we do. We have the intention of opening and operating more sites like this around the planet under the C2 brand.
What advice would you give planners wanting to incorporate C2-like experiences at an average convention center?
Dare to do things you would normally not do. Dare to give your attendees the ability to be more interactive and experiential with your content. Cut a few things costing you a lot money right now that have been going on for years and take the gamble to take one activity in a new direction. Usually, you’ll be surprised by how many people want to be involved and how much money can be attached to doing things differently.