Belle Laide Events’ work on TEDxSydney 2017 demonstrates how challenges can be a growth opportunity and that an eye for detail makes a difference.
A special feature by Bronwen Largier
Belle Laide’s work on TEDxSydney has landed them the 2017 NSW MEA Award for Social Legacy, as well as the national MEA Award for Corporate Event of the Year in 2017 and the 2017 Australian Event Award for CIM Magazine Best Meeting or Conference.
But behind the well-executed one day event of TED talks, there were significant challenges as BLE took on the task of helping the event move from its original home at the Sydney Opera House to the newly minted International Convention Centre Sydney, and in the process, double the number of attendees.
Talking – at length – with BLE Director Mark Taylor and reading the testimonial from TEDxSydney founder and licensee Remo Giuffré on Belle Laide’s work with the event, a few things become clear :
- The event could not have been pulled off by an event company who treated the project as just another standard gig. It required – at least in part – a labour of love and an ode to perfecting the details on behalf of BLE.
- Giuffré’s testimonial makes it clear that even Taylor under-represents his team’s commitment to the project.
- Good relationships within the industry are important.
- Not-for-profit events like TEDxSydney with good reputations, dreams bigger than their budgets and a lot of risk in the unknown are fabulous opportunities for boutique event companies to challenge themselves and gain traction in new markets.
“I think we all knew though from the outset – and Remo was really honest about it – it was going to be a large body of work where there was not really any funding behind it,” says Taylor.
“It’s also a business decision for anyone that’s approached around TED: are you going to march into the unknown?
“But for us we were quite keen from the outset to stretch our legs and see what it was like.”
It would seem however there is a difference between knowing about the unknowns and actually having to deal with them.
“The jump from the Opera House to the ICC was just so massive,” says Taylor.
“TEDx is a true not-for-profit. They do not set out to make buckets of money. They just do not. The biggest challenge is that no one knew what the jump from, not only 2000 people to double your numbers, but the change from the Opera House to the ICC – what that would actually look like,” he says.
“A lot of costs would come in as you go along. A lot of costs would come in after the event so you could only sort of manage the budget as you went along.”
Giuffré confirms that Belle Laide did successfully balance the budget for the event, in part by negotiating more than $150,000 of in-kind support from suppliers and producers, “without which,” says Giuffré, “the event would not have been possible”.
There were a number of areas where challenges arose. The first was maintaining the TEDx trademark intimacy between presenters and audience, while staging an event for more than 4,000 people in the “ginormous” space of the ICC Theatre, which has a seated capacity of 8,000.
“We actually removed the stage in the theatre, which was really interesting,” says Taylor.
“Once we got on that stage, there was still quite a big disconnect, which is great for bands, but as a speaker platform and to try to achieve what TED wanted to do, it had to go.
“The stage is a removable stage – you can do it. People make it bigger – they do whatever they want to it. But to decide to actually strike the entire thing was a surprising piece for many. But it was definitely the best thing [for the event] because we could drive the audience right up to it, which is what you get in every other TEDx environment.
“We created the small TEDx stage that people know – the circle – and brought the seating right down to the floor.”
It was, says Taylor, “quite a sweet move, I think, for the talks and story-telling pieces”.
The next problem was what to do with more than 4,000 people in the considerable downtime between the four sessions of speakers and performers – the event runs from 7:00am until 6.30pm in a venue designed to host concerts with single intervals.
“The theatre in the ICC, amazing as it is, it’s not built for food and beverage service … all of a sudden when we walk in for the first time, I was like, ‘where are we going to do this, this, this, this and this?’” explains Taylor.
“Even if it was just coming down to serving the lunch, where do people go?
“Servicing that many people and comfortably and efficiently, they needed space to stay in play.”
“That’s where a challenge [arose] and then the Hub was born, when we had to take on [ICC Exhibition] Halls 6 and 7, so literally 9000m2 of space, with no money, and make something.
“There was a whole gamut of things that needed to still happen. You couldn’t squeeze it into one hall because that’s one square metre per person.”
The creation of the Hub became a community and networking space for TEDxSydney attendees, complete with a Tribe of Tribes – 15 groups speaking to various sections and interests of the community from Independent Thinkers to Creative and Curious, LGBTQI, Introverts and Single and Open to Romance – sponsorship and other activations, an additional stage and numerous food and beverage service areas.
The concept represented a first for TEDx globally and presented a logistical, financial and creative challenge for BLE to tackle, with responsibility for most of what went on in the space.
“Sure they’d activated things in the foyer of the Opera House … but nothing like what 2017 represented,” says Taylor.
“That’s where we probably served TED the best from a creativity point of view.
“We wanted sponsors to get involved so they started to do really cool things as well, more interesting that just stand builds,” says Taylor.
Of the 15 tribes – despite Taylor’s desire to have fewer, “Remo had 15 in his head. I was like, ‘Man, can we do 10?’ Every tribe was a cost so I could just see hard cost” – eight of them were activated by sponsors – four of which had the legwork done by BLE – and the remaining seven were left to the ingenuity of Taylor’s team. All 15 were subjected to Taylor’s proclivity for perfection.
“I pulled a lot of favours. [We were] looking for really small, sharp, simple ideas with big impact. Where it was asking of a supplier that existed, we would ask any favour we could – TEDx does have a bit of pull which is kind of nice, so that was alright. Anywhere where we were short, I guess I just took it on my own self to get it done.
“We [BLE] have a warehouse, thankfully, of a lot of assets and decor and stuff that we use on our client events, so I gutted that thing.”
Even for tribes which did have sponsors attached, Taylor stepped in to help. An activation by Harris Farm Markets featuring their Imperfect Picks is a case in point.
“This was just me being me – I’ve got an old vintage Chevy truck so the truck came in, we piled it up, with all of our crates again, packed it all up, they just brought in the fruit and they had a providore there who was spruiking it. People could just help themselves. It was a snack opportunity.”
Giuffré describes BLE’s treatment of the Hub as “inspired”.
“The experiences they created, their innovative use of space and smart integration of brand stories, ensured we were able to maximise much-needed revenue without compromising the TEDx brand,” he says.
Another significant challenge was the streaming component of the event, an integral element to the TED philosophy of spreading ideas. The entire event is streamed live to approximately half a million people around the world.
Taylor says simply, “We found a few challenges with the streaming aspect – a lot of challenges – and we had to do a lot of pre-testing; the ICC gave us time to do that obviously. I don’t think it had been done for that kind of scale, especially in the ICC. We just did not want that to fall over.”
Finally, after the precedent set by chef Matt Moran and Aria during previous TEDxSydney events at the Opera House, the catering proved a challenge.
Without the funding or the support of a celebrity chef behind the event and with Taylor still keen to set a benchmark in the food and beverage department, Belle Laide had to approach it differently with the help of the ICC.
“We didn’t go for the abundance…because I think with that came a lot of wastage. So even though it was great to see all these big stations of food at the Opera House, there was that conscious piece around how much food wastage there was, so we ended up doing the sustainable lunchbox menu,” says Taylor.
“We made sure that every part of that lunchbox [was a] sustainability piece – working with Biopak with all the packaging and recyclability and then having some of those external stories with Harris Farm, the Bread and Butter Project, Pepe [Saya, cultured butter] and all those other things, that’s when we ended up building up a nice story.”
“They had to rally on the price and stuff,” says Taylor of the ICC catering team. “Without the support of the ICC team, again the outcome would have been a very different story.” The cost of the venue comes up a number of times during our discussion and begs a question about the affordability – particularly for not-for-profits – of a NSW Government project building which prides itself as the pinnacle of the events industry in Australia.
In all its glory – and it was glorious, Giuffré confirms the event garnered TEDxSydney its highest attendee approval rating ever – TEDxSydney was a big ask from everyone concerned, from the largely volunteer base that brings the event to life from a curation, marketing, ticketing and sponsorship perspective, to the venue, the suppliers and of course, BLE who were responsible for overseeing the work of all these stakeholders be successfully implemented on event day.
“You could not compare any previous TEDxSydney event to what it was [in 2017]. It was a game changer,” says Taylor.
Much of this came down to the creation of the Hub. But, he adds, “I’m glad it happened because you know, [otherwise] it would have just been another gig. Everything in the hub, for what it took, turned out to be the best thing we could have done for TED.”
And the experience was “100 percent” helpful for Belle Laide’s future projects.
“It’s definitely paved the way for us for where we want to go.”
Taylor refers to TEDxSydney as a “proving ground” for him and they’re looking at applying some of the ideas and concepts learned through TED and its philosophy, particularly around corporate social responsibility, to their future corporate projects.
They’ve got larger projects coming up, so it seems their foray into TEDxSydney is paying dividends already.
“On the day, people loved it, I got a good kick out of it and it certainly helped reshape what we’re doing,” says Taylor.
As for Giuffré, he’s got nothing but praise for Belle Laide Events.
“BLE seemly thrive at solving big problems (and we had many of them!), often in creatively inventive ways, which is completely in line with our philosophy.
“There’s a difference between a good event producer and a great event producer. Faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, a good event producer will solve them but a great event producer will turn that challenge into an opportunity that ‘makes’ the event. Mark Taylor and his team at BLE are just such producers. To them event production is truly a craft and nothing short of perfection will do.”
TEDxSydney 2018 will take place at the ICC Sydney on 15 June 2018. After helping the event transition to the new venue in 2017, Belle Laide Events have passed the baton on to INVNT for 2018.
Highlights of TEDxSydney 2017
Event management agency – Belle Laide Events
Venue – International Convention Centre Sydney
AV partner- Innovative Production Services
Livestream director – Burchmore Productions
Livestream – Viostream
Broadcast – NEP
Furniture hire – Valiant Hire
Food recovery – OzHarvest
Reusable water cups – Globelet
Coffee – Little Marionette
Tea Zone – Tippity Tea
Waste removal partner – Soilco
Sustainable packaging partner – Biopak
Bakery partner – Bread and Butter Project
Sustainability Tribe – Harris Farm Markets – Imperfect Picks fruit installation
Sustainability Tribe – Meet PAT – water fountain installation
Body, Mind & Soul Tribe – Peter Bliss – silent disco Tai Chi