The New City Gas building at the heart of C2-MTL

Does the world really need another business conference? Between blockbuster events like TED, Davos and SXSW, esoteric industry trade shows and humbler networking meet-ups, it’s a miracle anyone ever steps into their office these days. But even as technology has made it easier to connect with colleagues and peers around the world, our thirst for face-to-face interactions has become more powerful than ever (and the travel industry isn’t complaining).

I’ve been to a lot of media and marketing events over the past few years. Some have been informative, others genuinely inspiring, while most have been a mixed bag. But they’ve all adhered to same general format, which includes some combination of airless conference centres, labyrinthian expo halls, fluorescent lighting, canned music, box lunches, filtered coffee and cheap swag.

Not C2-MTL. Curated by homegrown advertising agency Sid Lee and supported by their longtime client (and part owner) Cirque Du Soleil, events giant HSM, business magazine Fast Company and a fleet of sponsors including all three levels of government, C2-MTL’s mission was to “reinvent the business conference” and to promote Montreal as an international hub for creativity and commerce.

The C2-MTL atrium

Glancing at C2-MTL’s speaker list one might confuse the event for any other summer conference, with familiar new media headliners like The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington and Google Creative Lab’s Robert Wong joining entertainment elders like Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner (with a bunch of C2-MTL stakeholders – Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre, Sid Lee Chairman Bertand Cesvet – thrown into the mix).

Arianna Huffington is interviewed by Mitch Joel

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner

Google CFO Patrick Pichette interviewed by the C2-MTL onsite editorial team

But as MC Geneviève Borne reminded the crowd throughout the event, C2-MTL’s unique selling proposition had less to do with the event’s content than “the experience.”

Even before picking up their badges C2-MTL attendees were treated to a sound and light “mind reset moment” created by The Moment Factory, the Montreal-based company that animated Madonna’s halftime show at this year’s Superbowl. It was a first taste of the interactive art installations that were sprinkled throughout the venue.

Indeed, the venue alone set C2-MTL apart from other business conferences. Rather than take up residence in Montreal’s venerable Palais des Congrès or the local Hilton, C2-MTL breathed life into a 19th-century gas warehouse located in the long-forsaken, slowly gentrifying neighbourhood of Griffintown, just south of downtown.

The building, know as New City Gas, was the crown jewel of C2-MTL’s pop-up “village of innovation,” which included several branded lounges and giant wooden tables for group lunches, breakout workshops and Lego sessions.

The epicenter of the event was a sort of town square in front of New City Gas populated by Adirondack chairs, a well-stocked café-bar, a taco truck and a kiosk serving fresh lobster meat in toasted hotdog buns (an apt snack given the nearly 30-degree temperatures and blaring sun).

The C2-MTL plaza looking north toward downtown Montreal

A breakout session

Fun with Lego

A rare taco truck in a city where street food is banned

The event’s commerce and creativity theme came to life in the E-merge exhibit, sponsored by Quebec’s Minister of Economic Development, Education and Export Trade and curated by Art Souterrain’s Frédéric Loury. The exhibit showcased experimental interactive projects by a combination of local contemporary artists and digital startups.

E-merge exhibition: "Echoes of Absence" by Baillat Cardell & sons + Iregular

E-merge exhibition: QReative Room by 2XM Interactive

E-merge exhibition: Hysterical Machines by Bill Vorn

The conference hall, which took up the second floor of New City Gas, felt more like a state-of-the-art concert venue than a sterile convention centre thanks to gorgeous lighting and a rocking live band that entertained the crowd between speakers.

The crowd inside New City Gas

The C2-MTL crowd from above

The C2-MTL house band

Time will tell whether C2-MTL really does change the business conference game. But one clear lesson for event organizers is that good music, great food, a unique venue, and a well-curated aesthetic can count almost as much as the keynote.

(Words: Dan Levy | Photos: Joey Tanny) 

For more photos from C2-MTL check out our Facebook albumsWednesday and Thursday

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