In advance of the 2012 TED Global Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, the event planning team at TED had spent more than a year designing and double checking every detail to make sure the event ran smoothly.
The team chose and executed a theme (“radical openness”), deigned the flow of traffic and schedule of events, and ensured every conference goer’s needs would be met at the moment that need arose—not a minute later—whether hunger, thirst or a desire to share the spark of an idea with another creative mind.
TED as an organization was quite practiced at planning large-scale events across the world by this point: in Tanzania, Brazil, India, Canada and beyond. But in Edinburgh during one session, as people sat in their seats, perhaps a bit hungry as it was 20 minutes before lunch, the power went out. The theater was pitched in darkness. It’s easy to imagine murmurs of confusion as people wondered what was happening.
A power outage had hit the entire city. And that’s when the conference team really kicked into gear.
“We descended upon the theater, the entire team,” said Kyle Shearer, Conference Production Director of TED Conferences.
One team member with a booming voice got on stage to announce that lunch would be served early. Others helped direct conference goers to where catering had quickly set up an informal lunch, almost like a picnic, Shearer said.
And the event continued, if not without a hitch then at least safely and with a little extra excitement.
“The hardest part of the job is obviously the unexpected,” said Shearer. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Shearer has been planning TED conferences for almost a decade. That includes two annual conferences, TED and TED Women, plus occasional events like TED Summit and TED Global.
He saw the power outage in Edinburgh as both a learning experience—for future events, the team looked for opportunities to add backup generators—and evidence of their meticulous planning. They had a clear escalation plan for who makes the call in an emergency, for example, as well as strong relationships with their vendors, like caterers, who helped problem-solve in the moment.
“You assume the best but plan for the worst,” Shearer said.
When they aren’t planning contingencies for mini disasters, Shearer’s team is looking for ways to innovate and create opportunities to surprise and delight.
Each event starts with a theme that comes from the executive director. The theme of the 2019 TED Conference was “Bigger Than Us.” In the planning process, Shearer’s team uses a style guide that dictates font, colors, types of furniture, and other details for a cohesive look from room to room, so that the theme trickles down to every aspect of the event.
“It has this ripple effect in a way,” Shearer said of the style guide.
In addition to making sure everything runs smoothly and the theme is cohesive, they look for ways to stay fresh.
This year, that meant creating something called the TED Hideaway. Conference goers got tips throughout the week for the hideaway’s location. They’d unlock information about the secret knock to get in the door, as if visiting a speakeasy. This space was hidden in plain sight in the convention center itself, but tucked into a corner that wasn’t part of the more heavily trafficked areas. The point was to create a time and place for people to connect in a fun, unexpected way.
And here’s the thing: creativity and spontaneity don’t happen without lots of planning—and data. TED Conferences is notoriously obsessed with data. With that information, they can see which parties are most popular (opening night) and which ones are the sparsest (the farewell picnic, because people have left to catch flights). Then they use that information to better predict consumption and reduce waste.
TED Conferences are large, elaborate events with many details to account for. But Shearer says that the formula is the same for large or small events: plan ahead, check and double check, and build strong relationships with vendors.
“I want people to feel warm and welcome and inspired and excited,” Shearer said. “All of the things that you can really only hope for.”
Here, he’s being humble. You can plan for those things, too.
Feature image photo credit: Bret Hartman / TED