When the TED Talks people came knocking at Vancouver's door last December looking for a new home for their signature event, the city's tourism officials didn't just see another small conference on the horizon.
Instead, they viewed the visit as their chance to promote a kind of intellectual Olympic Games for the next two years, where they could sell Vancouver to the world via an international elite of thought leaders.
In return, the organizers of TED – which stands for technology, entertainment and design and brings together innovators of assorted stripes – saw Vancouver as a city whose ethos matched that of the TED Talks: future-focused, green, creative.
"I think the spirit of the city is wonderful for TED. We've met so many people who are dreaming big here," TED "curator" and owner Chris Anderson said Monday from New York, where he announced the signature event would move from Long Beach, Calif., to Vancouver for 2014 and 2015 – and possibly beyond.
For both sides, it was a chance to leverage off each other as they combined the city with the leaders who frequent the TED Talks. Past speakers have included former president Bill Clinton, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Google inventors Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster, scientist David Keith and many more, ranging from international celebrities to little-known but creative theorists. All give the 18-minute speeches that have become a global cultural phenomenon.
The event attracts 1,400 people peryear who pay $7,500 to attend, along with the hundreds of thousands who have become devotees of TED Talks through their ubiquitous presence on the Internet, in classrooms, and through spinoff mini-TED Talks.
"None of us see this as a simple convention coming to town. It's an opportunity to tell our own story through TED," said Greg Klassen, a senior vice-president with the Canadian Tourism Commission. "We've negotiated the rights to leverage their brand, using the kinds of things we learned from the Olympics."
So Vancouver will be able to market itself as the TED host city and Canada as the TED host country. And tourism planners are looking at ways to spin off other city events and draw top companies to Vancouver for meetings, using attractions such asextra speeches from some TED presenters.
They hope the strategy will make Vancouver synonymous with creative thinking, the way Austin is now the city of independent music as a result of South by Southwest, and Davos means serious talk about international finance because of its association with the World Economic Forum.
The Monday announcement caused a visible bubble of euphoria among city officials. "This is a game-changer for Vancouver. We're known as a world-class tourism destination but this shows we're breaking through in thought leadership," Mayor Gregor Robertson said. "I'd like to explore how we can best leverage the opportunity to vault Vancouver into the spotlight and endear us to the leading thinkers who come here."
Since 1990, the main TED Talks annual event has been held in smaller California cities, first in Monterey and then, after 2009, in Long Beach. Mr. Anderson, while speaking graciously about Long Beach as a host, said Vancouver's natural setting enhances what TED is about.
While his organization had been looking at various locales, Vancouver won their hearts. The city, where TED staff know several people already, was welcoming. (The organization, which has its main offices in New York, has had its conference-organizing staff based in Vancouver for a decade.) The Vancouver Convention Centre, he said, is "very, very, very beautiful – you feel connected to nature there. The setting is inspiring." It's also central, with hotels and activities on the doorstep. And, most important, the city "has that combination of forward-looking innovators and commitment to sustainability" that reflects TED themes.
The TED talks began in 1984, when architect and urban designer Richard Saul Wurman brought together leading thinkers in Monterey to discuss new ideas. Mr. Wurman sold the concept in 2001 for $14-million to Mr. Anderson and the non-profit Sapling Foundation, which has expanded to create other talk-fests around the globe.
According to a Financial Times story last fall, Mr. Wurman thinks the TED concept has become too orchestrated and too slick. Other critics have complained that the talks have become intellectually pretentious and almost industrialized in their production. A recent New Yorker article described them as appealing to "college-educated adults who want to close the gap between academic thought and the lives they live now." But that hasn't made a dint in their phenomenal popularity, with over 1,200 cities having hosted spinoff TEDx talks.