When I first attended C2 Montréal in the spring of 2016, it was easy to see why the three-day celebration of creativity and commerce (hence the name “C2”) has established itself as one of the most innovative business conferences in the world. The talking heads in windowless ballrooms and mile-long show floors in windowless exhibit halls that outsiders often associate with the meetings and events industry were nowhere to be found. Instead, I sampled herbs in a meditative garden, shared an umbrella under fake snow with a stranger, listened to live improvised music in between educational sessions in a circus tent, and chose my lunch options from an array of food trucks parked next to a dock where other attendees boarded a boat for a ride on the Lachine Canal.
So when Tourisme Montréal hosted Convene on a press trip to experience C2 2017, I assumed I had a good idea of what to expect. What could C2 possibly do to change up the experience?
A lot, it turns out. Arsenal, the industrial art exhibition space where C2 attendees gather each year, was refreshed with new art installations, new interactive labs, and a new fishbowl-style studio that shared the experience on YouTube. The C2 Village — the outdoor portion of the program — was reconfigured with sponsored private shipping-container lounges. The Big Top, a circus tent where big-name speakers take the stage, featured new 360-degree seating and a projection-mapped ceiling screen above the audience. For people who had participated the previous year — or attended any other iteration of C2 since it launched in 2012 — 2017 felt like an entirely new experience.
Blank Canvas for Creativity
In 2017, the central theme was “Ecosystems,” which aimed to help 6,000 attendees — a new record for C2 — examine the “complex networks and interconnected systems” that shape today’s world. The topic chosen each year is intentionally broad enough to allow for a wide range of interpretations and activations that a diverse attendee base — including forward-thinking leaders from more than 20 industries — finds relevant. The C2 team embraces the freedom to explore opportunities that can connect the dots between and among the theme, the environment, and the speakers in the program. “It’s an 18-month planning cycle,” Langevin said. “We allow for a lot of time so we can think about how to bring the theme to life literally.”
That work isn’t confined to email exchanges and meetings in a standard office space. Instead, C2 plans creative retreats to fuel brainstorming sessions. Some are as small as two individuals, while others might bring together 50 people for a full day of trading ideas and dreaming of new ways to reshape the on-site experience. Regardless of the size, each retreat relies on a process Langevin likens to an arcade game.
“We want to pinball ideas,” Langevin said. “You throw an idea really hard, and it pinballs against the other minds in the group. An idea is the first piece, and other minds can take that initial concept to unexpected places.”
While the process may sound unorganized, there’s an overarching goal that dictates the conversations. “When we design those retreat days, we do it with a very clear view of the outcomes that we’re looking for on the other end,” Langevin said. “But it’s a process. You don’t come out of a retreat with a perfect understanding of what will happen.”
Discussions That Travel in Many Directions
For C2 Montréal 2017, the “Ecosystems” theme provided a launching pad for organizers to discuss moonshots — “the aspirational ideas that move mankind forward,” Langevin said. “We started thinking about what makes a moonshot and its role in disrupting and shaping ecosystems. A moonshot is only possible if you take your feet off the ground and allow yourself to think about a world that doesn’t exist yet.”
That definition led to the Sky Lab, an interactive piece of the program that lifted attendees 20 feet from the ground and surrounded them with a projection screen. “You lose spatial reference points,” Langevin said, “and it allows you to start breaking free from the world and the constraints around you.”
While C2’s brainstorming process results in big-budget ideas like Sky Lab, the retreats also yield plenty of options for more affordable activations. For example, in an effort to help attendees think about the ecosystem of food ingredients, C2 offered an unexpected conference activity: the Cake Lab, where participants contributed to baking a huge 10-layer cake over three days.
“Some ideas will lead to stunning installations like Sky,”Langevin said, “but others can feel much more simple. Each year, our goal is to design a place where moments of inspiration and surprise can take people to their most creative places.”
After six years, it’s clear that C2 is delivering on that promise. Harvard Business Review described it as “a conference unlike any other.” Accolades like that can be heady, but the secret to C2’s reputation as an innovator in business events may be that its organizers haven’t cornered themselves into thinking they actually belong in the industry.
“Is C2 an event?” Langevin asked. “My answer is no. C2 is a convening that sets the stage to awaken the imagination.”