Thrival Festival Integrates Pittsburgh Locale into Event

Author: Barbara Palmer       

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Veserium performs a Silent Disco during Thrival’s Interactive Experience at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Ben Petchel)

Amy Blackman is a coastal snob. “I admit it,” said Blackman, a principal strategy consultant for Fruition, based in Los Angeles. “I was born and raised in New York City. I’ve lived in L.A. for 25 years.”

So when she was asked to speak at Thrival, an annual immersive, innovation-focused festival exploring the effects of advanced technology on business, society, and culture, Blackman wasn’t particularly excited about its location: Pittsburgh. The event was centered on a “super heady, amazing topic,” Blackman said. “But I was like, ‘Why isn’t this in San Francisco?’”

But, as it turned out, Thrival’s organizer, Ascender, a hub for Pittsburgh’s startups and entrepreneurs, walked the talk about immersion and innovation, Blackman said. “What they did was seamlessly integrate Pittsburgh into the entire fabric of the conference every step of the way.”

Conference venues included the 125-year-old Carnegie Museum of Art and the Victorian-era Phipps Conservatory at the Botanical Gardens, both in Pittsburgh’s historic Oakland neighborhood, home to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Conference participants took walking and architectural tours, spoke to chefs at local restaurants, and visited local startups and incubators, as well as the headquarters of companies including Google, where they took part in problem-solving activities with employees based on real-world scenarios in the city. “We really got a feel for what it means to be a resident of Pittsburgh, including understanding the issues the city is grappling with,” she said.

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Amy Blackman

“I went back to the coast, going, ‘You guys, did you know how cool Pittsburgh is?’” Blackman said. “Not only do they have a Whole Foods and yoga studios and an Ace Hotel, and all that crap that people like me need, but there’s real history and culture and innovation. It’s just an incredible place.”

Blackman’s experience in Pittsburgh came up — a lot — when she met with the multidisciplinary panel assembled to talk about future trends for the “The Future of Meetings and Events” report, she said. “We talked about what types of experiences we had all had in our different fields in going to meetings or events and having no connection to the place, even though it was a really cool place that we went to.”

Blackman previously managed bands, traveling all over the world, she said. “I can tick off all of the places that I have been. But when I really think about it, I was in a hotel, I was in the airport, I was in the venue, and maybe got out to one or two restaurants.” Any immersion into a city had to be done on her own, she said, and on her own time.

Looking back at events, she said, “the most impactful moments I’ve had are not just with programming and the cohort of people that are involved in an event, but where we were, and what we did when we were there, that was enriching or enlightening or surprising.”

As the group talked, the term “the Pittsburgh effect” became shorthand for Blackman’s experience and a meme for the day, Blackman said. Whenever the conversation turned to location, the question became, “Yes, but will we achieve the Pittsburgh effect?” she said. “Which is really even a step further, which is overcoming a stigma about a place.”

Blackman concedes that she “had a real judgment and preconceived notion about Pittsburgh.” It was, she said, “completely invalidated from my experience of going to Thrival — and how deliberate and intentional the organizers were about explaining and exposing the truths about Pittsburgh.”

As the group talked about creating surprise and delight, and about leaning into attendees as whole humans and understanding what they care about, “creating a sense of place became a really important part of the discussion,” Blackman said. “What it does is connect all the different trends.”

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Participants try out virtual reality and tech demos during Thrival’s Interactive Experience at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Ben Petchel)

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