Behind TED’s Big Move to Vancouver

Even before this gathering of media, politicians, tourism professionals, and thought leaders, much had already been said about the decision to bring TED Talks—the four-day conference of “Ideas Worth Spreading”—from its 13-year home of Monterey, California, to Vancouver for 2014 and 2015. Headlines promised the “prestigious” forum—the “Holy Grail”—would “legitimize” us. Twitter was, naturally, afire.

The star of this early-March announcement, owner of TED Conferences Chris Anderson, seems remarkably calm. TED, named for its cornerstone topics (technology, education, design), began in 1984 as a small annual convention; the Pakistan-born, Oxford-trained Anderson bought it in 2001 and settled it into his nonprofit foundation. (He made his money off IGN, a set of video-gaming websites he developed out of an early interest in personal computing.) The company has, over the last decade and thanks to YouTube, expanded considerably, adding to the annual marquee retreat a number of spinoffs, including the million-dollar TED Prize, TED Books, TEDGlobal, TEDWomen, and the community-driven TEDx events.

Standing before this keen crowd, Anderson throws out some numbers: “TED is tiny, less than $50 million. There are about 30 people here in Vancouver, about 100 in New York, and a handful around the world—that’s it.” The secret, he says, is the thousands of volunteers. “Trying to understand where that generosity comes from, that’s one of the riddles I try to solve.” He cites 40,000 TEDx organizers on 2,000 different teams. Six or seven TEDx events happen every single day, somewhere.

Anderson has come to explain why the whole shebang is coming here. One reason is just out the window. “Nature inspires,” he says. A second: “We couldn’t find any other cities that have this spectacular beauty right next to these gorgeous hotels.” The convention centre itself is a third, and then he rushes to add that our city is forward-thinking and innovative and walkable (it’s left to the others to contribute the requisite buzzwords: values, align, leaders, world-class, progressive, synergy, opportunities), but the notion of a safe, English-speaking, amply hotelled West Coast city seems paramount.

Behind the scenes, overseeing those 30 locals, are twins Janet and Katherine McCartney, who have produced TED since Anderson took over—they met when the sisters staged a private event for him in Whistler in 1999. Janet has a tourism background (Expo 86, Tourism Vancouver, CP Hotels), as does Katherine (11 years at Tourism BC). The two have a lot of work to do before March: most speakers won’t be confirmed until the fall, but the audience—about 1,600 people, accepted through an online application, pay a $7,500 admission fee—is nearly full in Vancouver and filling up for the satellite TEDActive event in Whistler (900 people watching the TED Conference videos in a simulcast environment; tickets, $3,750).

A past TED speaker is looking at installing an installation outside the convention centre that, the McCartneys say, “the public will be able to bear witness to.” A guest host or two (traditionally, Anderson hosts) are under consideration. But the seeds have been planted, and judging by the rapture in the convention centre as today’s speakers conclude, the harvest will be sizable. “This is the start of what I think is going to be a very, very exciting journey,” Anderson says. “It’s not a Canadian story; it’s not a Vancouver story. It’s a global story. This is about the future of the world. To be able to dream about that in this exquisite place, with the brilliant minds that are here…we are so thrilled.”