Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 01 2014

C2MTL: A Circus for Your Brain

By Barbara Palmer

C2MTL, a conference that organizers describe as ‘somewhere between genius and insanity,’ takes attendees on an emotional as well as an intellectual journey.


In putting together the C2MTL (Creativity + Commerce) business conference, which was held May 27–29 in Montreal, creators were looking to invent the kind of meeting “we’d want to come to ourselves,” said William Travis, a managing partner for Sid Lee, the Montreal-based creative services agency that founded the conference three years ago.

Designed as a forum to help business leaders integrate creativity and innovation into their organizations, the experience aims to be the antithesis of the experience of sitting in rows of chairs all day in a hotel basement. “I don’t want to be punished when I go to a conference,” Travis said. A conference should make “you feel like you’ve been to the well and got fed.”

The result is an immersive experience that functions as a kind of circus for the mind. Convene was there for C2MTL 2014 (hosted by Tourisme Montréal), and found a three-day meeting bursting with ideas, conversations, music and art, and plenty of creature comforts, such as well-cushioned chairs and good food and wine. Cirque du Soleil is a conference partner as well as a part owner of Sid Lee, and the environment had the feel of a stage set where the attendees were the actors. “We want people to feel like they can escape right on the premises,” Travis said. “Or that they are cocooned on an island.”

Since 2013, C2MTL has been housed in The Arsenal, a hulking, red-brick building, part of what was once a shipbuilding complex overlooking the Lachine Canal. The Arsenal is in Griffintown, a formerly industrial neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, and change is in the air. It’s all a lot of fun — how could it not be, with parties that feature confetti cannons? — but “the main focus is transformation,” Travis said. “We want to help attendees get into the mindset that they can change their business and lives going forward.”

It could seem like a free-for-all, but the C2MTL experience is anchored by four core values — organizers call them “The Four Pillars” — that are threaded through everything that happens at the conference:

1. INSPIRATION

“We hate boundaries between cultures and expertise,” said François Lacoursière, a vice president and senior partner at Sid Lee. One of the secrets to Sid Lee’s success, and the biggest asset to any business culture, Lacoursière said, is the ability to welcome new expertise from outside.

The invited speakers at C2MTL 2014 reflected a commitment to a diversity of perspectives — ranging from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to the rural poor, to billionaire Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos. Other speakers included Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Saudi Arabia and CEO of a Saudi Arabian retail company; film director James Cameron; and Abigail Posner, Google’s head of strategic planning.

One deliberately “slightly frictional” speaker was Cindy Gallop, a British advertising consultant whose startup Make Love Not Porn aims to create an archive of “real-world sex” videos, to create alternatives to hardcore pornography. Gallop, who along with Yunus was the most talked-about C2MTL speaker on social-media channels, was chosen for her potential to help audiences change their perspective, according to Travis, who noted that the speakers, like the attendees, were more evenly divided by gender than is usual at a business conference.

2. CONNECTION

With nearly 4,000 participants, C2MTL is a big conference, and networking isn’t left up to chance. Attendees are looking not just for new contacts, organizers said, but also for potential business partners and mentors. The meeting is engineered to support those connections.

One method is through “The Hub,” an online matchmaking system where attendees register their business and personal interests in advance, and can offer their expertise or request contact with someone with a specific skill or insight. During C2MTL 2014, The Hub arranged nearly 1,000 meetings, and many more happened on the fly, including at an in-person version of the system designed into a game called “The Knowledge Market.”

Opportunities for networking also were supported by a flexible schedule — breaks between the main stage speakers, who were presented in batches of two or three, were up to an hour long. And the environment at The Arsenal provided lots of places where groups of any size could gather, ranging from steps near a center bar in the large main hangar, to quiet space walled off by transparent dividers, to a Bedouin-style tent out back filled with brightly colored cushions and hanging lamps.

3. EXPERIMENTATION

“The only source of knowledge is experience,” wrote Albert Einstein — a quote that C2MTL organizers say in a conference publication “embodies our entire philosophy.” The conference provided multiple opportunities and ways for attendees to experience ideas with one another — led by a facilitator or on their own — in groups of all sizes.

One of the most popular collaborative spaces was the DIY Lab, where attendees were invited to generate responses to questions posed by conference speakers using a variety of methods. They included traditional brainstorming, with sticky notes and pens, but group conversations also were conducted in a pit filled with small plastic balls, with participants wearing blindfolds. (The idea was that by limiting the senses and simulating weightlessness, new perspectives and perceptions might arise.) The DIY Lab also provided maps of the neighborhood streets around The Arsenal, and suggested that attendees take a walk while they talked. Another popular spot was the Solutions Lab’s “Bring Your Own Issue” space, where researchers and students from HEC Montreal, a local business school, worked with individual attendees, taking them through a five-step process that potentially could result in a new business plan.

During each of the first two conferences, C2MTL directed some of its energy toward a nonprofit organization or cause that addresses global issues that are in need of innovative solutions. This year, C2MTL conducted an on-site case study that reflected challenges facing ONE DROP, a Montreal-based nonprofit focused on providing sustainable access to safe water everywhere in the world. Attendees could participate in a crowd-sourced problem-solving session and/or join small teams; the top three teams pitched their ideas to ONE DROP on the final day of the conference.

4. CELEBRATION

C2MTL is designed primarily as an intellectual jouney, organizers said in C2MAG, the conference publication, but “experience shows that creativity is also an emotional process.” And by playing together, attendees find new ways to interact with one another and deepen connections.

That means more than parties — although those are pretty spectacular, too. The opening reception featured an original production by Cirque du Soleil, created especially for C2MTL. Live musical performances accompanied lunch in the “Garage,” an outbuilding where attendees gathered around mismatched kitchen tables and chairs. Local artists painted murals during the conference, and conducted interactive demonstrations in a conference boutique that featured their work.

C2MTL is a “manifestation of what Montreal stands for — a rich, resourceful environment,” Sid Lee’s Travis said. And three years into it, “we are hitting our stride.”

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.

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