Brocker.Org: What it’s like to attend the TED talks, where attendees pay...

Brocker.Org: What it’s like to attend the TED talks, where attendees pay $10,000 to learn the next big ideas

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TED Conference/FlickrIn some ways, attending the TED conference in person is exactly what you’d expect from watching TED talks online. It’s an overwhelming experience, jam-packed with scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and CEOs who all have their One Big Idea to share.

Many of the big-name speakers — in 2017, they include Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, Serena Williams, and Elon Musk — stick around for the whole event, and it’s not unusual to see them roaming the halls. There are also lots of well-known attendees who never hit the stage (the press isn’t allowed to name names, but you can figure it out with a little Twitter digging). 

The conference costs $10,000 to attend, and in addition to the talks there are all sorts of indulgent experiences, buffets, and workshops to keep attendees occupied. I showed up at the 2017 TED conference to check it all out.  Here’s what it’s like.


For the last few years, TED has been held in the Vancouver Convention Center in Vancouver, Canada.

For the last few years, TED has been held in the Vancouver Convention Center in Vancouver, Canada.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

TED was founded in 1984, and the first conference was held in Monterey, California. These days, the conference runs from Monday through Friday. People have to apply to go — attendance is capped at 1,800— and it sells out many months in advance. 

The space sits right on the harbor, with wall-to-wall views of the water.

The space sits right on the harbor, with wall-to-wall views of the water.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

My first stop at the venue each morning is the food. For every meal, TED lays out a buffet of options with detailed ingredient descriptions (including whether they are vegan or gluten-free).

My first stop at the venue each morning is the food. For every meal, TED lays out a buffet of options with detailed ingredient descriptions (including whether they are vegan or gluten-free).

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

It’s certainly better than your average conference food.

It's certainly better than your average conference food.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

If the buffets don’t cut it, attendees can also order from one of several local food trucks for lunch. They all have select items that are available for free.

If the buffets don't cut it, attendees can also order from one of several local food trucks for lunch. They all have select items that are available for free.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

There are different dinner options available each night, including a “Jeffersonian Dinner,” where attendees can pick a topic they’re interested in — like the future of psychedelics or the news industry — and eat with like-minded TEDsters at a local restaurant (all for free, of course).

Select attendees are also invited to private lunches and dinners.

Select attendees are also invited to private lunches and dinners.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

Throughout the conference, attendees can go to several off-site events, some of which come at an additional cost.

Throughout the conference, attendees can go to several off-site events, some of which come at an additional cost.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

Some TEDsters signed up for test drives of the BMW i3, i8 and X5 40e models. This was billed as a get-to-know-you event for attendees.

Some TEDsters signed up for test drives of the BMW i3, i8 and X5 40e models. This was billed as a get-to-know-you event for attendees.

Ryan Lash/TED

BMW is a TED partner in 2017, so the company also shuttled attendees around for free throughout the conference.

Other activity options included a brewery tour and a snowshoe scavenger hunt (ziplining was originally offered, but was canceled because of weather).

Attendees inside the convention center also have a huge array of activity options. There are test drives of the Copenhagen Wheel (an electric bike wheel system)…

Attendees inside the convention center also have a huge array of activity options. There are test drives of the Copenhagen Wheel (an electric bike wheel system)...

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

…relaxation pods…

...relaxation pods...

Marla Aufmuth/TED

… and meditation spaces. (This one comes courtesy of Lululemon.)

... and meditation spaces. (This one comes courtesy of Lululemon.)

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

A robot from Boston Dynamics roamed the halls after the TED talk from the robotics company’s CEO, Marc Raibert.

 

A bookstore sells a variety of books, many of which were written by TED speakers.

A bookstore sells a variety of books, many of which were written by TED speakers.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

The second floor of the conference center is dominated by a Steelcase-branded quiet workspace, with desks, couches, and private rooms. I’ve spent a lot of time up here writing stories.

The second floor of the conference center is dominated by a Steelcase-branded quiet workspace, with desks, couches, and private rooms. I've spent a lot of time up here writing stories.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

Workshops throughout the conference give attendees a break from the brain overload of TED talks.

Workshops throughout the conference give attendees a break from the brain overload of TED talks.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

Participants in an “Improv Everywhere” danced outside the convention center, led in synchronized moves by whoever jumped on the “Dance Captain Wanted” stage.

I attended a workshop called “Understanding city resilience through data.” We each sat in front of a laptop loaded with maps that let us zoom in on the risks facing urban areas throughout the world.

I attended a workshop called

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

The convention center has just one theater, so you have to wait in line to enter for a talk.

The convention center has just one theater, so you have to wait in line to enter for a talk.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

For especially popular sessions, the line might form at least half an hour before the talk begins. Once inside, it’s a bit of a race getting to a good seat.

Donors, who pay $25,000 for the conference, get a separate line and choice seating at the front of the theater.

 

As a member of the press, I’m relegated to one of the back two rows, since those are the only spots where laptops are allowed. There’s really no bad seat, though.

As a member of the press, I'm relegated to one of the back two rows, since those are the only spots where laptops are allowed. There's really no bad seat, though.

Bret Hartman/TED

Speakers are coached long before they get onstage to make sure their talks go smoothly.

Speakers are coached long before they get onstage to make sure their talks go smoothly.

Devita Davidson, the executive director of Foodlab Detroit, was one of the more inspiring speakers this year.Marla Aufmuth/TED

Many talks are just as inspirational as the few that go viral online. But there’s so much pressure involved with getting on the TED stage (online fame and even potential book deals can be on the line), that some people stumble. TED does an impressive job of editing the videos of talks that had hiccups to ensure they look good on the internet.

Some talks are interactive. We were asked to participate in a conference-wide thought experiment for a talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neurologist
Mariano Sigman.

Some talks are interactive. We were asked to participate in a conference-wide thought experiment for a talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neurologist 
 Mariano Sigman.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

Not everyone watches every talk in the TED theater — there isn’t enough seating for every attendee. But there are dozens of simulcast screens throughout the venue, with all manner of comfortable seating available.

Not everyone watches every talk in the TED theater — there isn't enough seating for every attendee. But there are dozens of simulcast screens throughout the venue, with all manner of comfortable seating available.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

There’s also some more creative types of seating.

There's also some more creative types of seating.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

At some point during the conference, attendees stop by the “gift cave” to pick the items they want in their TED gift bag.

At some point during the conference, attendees stop by the

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

There are only limited amounts of the big-ticket items. By the time I scoped out the cave on Wednesday, the carry-on luggage gift was already gone. Allbirds sneakers, a Silicon Valley favorite, had yet to arrive (and were surely snapped up quickly once they did).

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