Features like sound-absorbing paper strips allow C2MTL’s open environment to energize but not overwhelm attendees. (Jimmy Hamelin)
From its beginning four years ago, Montreal’s C2MTL conference, combining Commerce + Creativity, intended to be more than just a little bit different. A partnership between Sid Lee creative-services firm and Cirque Du Soleil — both based in Montreal — the event not only brings in some of the world’s most innovative thinkers and business leaders, but also takes place in imaginative, immersive environments. Organizers emphasize sensory experience and experimentation — last year, attendees climbed into a pool filled with small plastic balls — as well as connecting participants to one another to generate ideas.
But even the boldest meeting planners encounter boundaries that can be pushed only so far — such as the physical limits of sound. That was a lesson that C2MTL learned the hard way.
‘A Lot of Open Space’
At the first conference, in 2011, organizers attempted to stage four workshops in one “large space with really long tables,” said Nadia Lakhdari, C2MTL’s vice president of content and creation. “It ended up being a disaster, because no one could hear the instructions that the workshop leaders were giving.” In an attempt to be heard, workshop leaders climbed onto the tops of tables and turned up the volume. “They only managed to drown each other out — making the problem worse rather than helping it.”
As a result, C2MTL rethought how it used space. “One of the big learning curves we’ve had with noise is that not every activity can take place anywhere on the site,” Lakhdari said. “It’s something we give a lot of thought to, and we make sure that our expectations for what is going to take place match with the noise level that is predicted to be in a certain space.
“Because we work with a lot of open spaces, we pay a lot of attention to our often-competing noises and how these things are organized during the day so that they don’t overlap each other,” she said. “And if there is a need for one item to really be noisy, then we will suspend activity in neighboring areas for that time so that no one is annoyed by the neighboring noise, and is stopped from doing what they thought they were there to do.”
In the case of workshops, they’re structured so that at no point does a leader have to address a group of, say, 20 people at once in a shared space. “Maybe instead, the leader will go from group to group and talk to people one-on-one,” Lakhdari said. “There are ways around this, but don’t try and pretend that you can hold a group activity in a noisy place, because it just won’t happen. A group activity led by one person and where you expect all the group to hear — it just won’t work. But other deconstructed activities or networking activities will work very well in a noisy place.”
These renderings offer general examples of learning environments without walls that offer their own sound challenges. If you are going to have several presenters and/or discussions taking place in the same room in different areas at the same time, pay attention to the floor, ceiling, wall, and furniture materials. For temporary fixes, experts recommend gobos (moveable walls), heavy drapes, carpeting, and upholstered furniture to absorb sound.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that for the last three years, C2MTL has taken place at the Arsenal, a huge, redbrick building that originally was part of a 19th-century shipyard. “It’s really an acoustics nightmare,” Lakhdari said. “In its raw state, if it’s empty, it’s very echoey. And so we work a lot with fabrics and different textures and different structures to try and create areas that will absorb noise a little bit.”
But those efforts always have to be counterbalanced with fire regulations. “There is a limit,” Lakhdari said. “If all you were focused on were acoustics, you drape a lot of thick fabric all over the place to create little bubbles. But that can contravene the fire code for different buildings. And so it’s always something where it’s not only budget that will limit you in making a place more acoustically friendly.”
In the Mix
C2MTL begins with a very good sound system and a very qualified person both to operate it and to design its placement. “Just something as simple as in which direction do you orient a speaker, for example, will have a huge impact on sound in surrounding areas,” Lakhdari said. “So that design needs to have been done extremely well, and that tends to be expensive, because you need to hire good equipment and hire the right people to design the use.”
The mix of high-tech equipment and low-tech sound absorbers, such as fabric, walls, and paper, is a collaboration between C2MTL’s sound and set designers, who consider both utility and aesthetics, Lakhdari said. And the organizers themselves also try to strike a balance on sound.
“If you’re somewhere that is just too noisy and you can’t hear each other speak, then it won’t be an enjoyable experience — especially at a conference where networking is such a fundamental part of what you’re there to do,” Lakhdari said. “But at the same time, if you walked into a space that [is so] quiet, you felt almost embarrassed to make noise, then that wouldn’t help your experience. So I think it’s that happy medium. And perhaps in the evening, it’s a little bit louder because people are used to a little bit more music and sound.”
Barbara Palmer is senior editor at Convene.