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Q & A

Q&A: How All Things Digital Stands Out Among So Many Business Conferences

Lia Kennett is the conference's general manager.

Photo: Asa Mathat/AllThingsD.com

Since its debut in 2003, The Wall Street Journal's “D: All Things Digital” conference has been bringing big-name speakers for conversations about the impact of digital technology now and in the future. The 10th annual conference—called D10—will take to the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes from May 29 through 31. This year's roster includes the likes of Oracle founder and C.E.O. Larry Ellison, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios president Ed Catmull, Spotify co-founder and C.E.O. Daniel Ek, and Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz, joining D's creators and executive producers,  Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. For a behind-the-scenes look at the program, we spoke to conference general manager Lia Kennett.

D10 sold out even earlier than expected. To what do you attribute the growing demand, even in a down economy?

We believe that there are two key elements driving the attendee demand for D: the relevance of the speakers and quality of the on-stage program, and the networking opportunities available, and fostered, on site. I think it's important to note that while any conference producer can invite C.E.O.s to speak, our format is somewhat different than most. We don't allow Powerpoint presentations or canned speeches. Instead, our executive producers, each trained journalists, conduct on-stage interviews with each speaker. Sometimes they interview a speaker together, and sometimes individually, but in either case, attendees aren't hearing the same talking points they may have heard at another conference or industry event. This format allows for direct and sometimes difficult questions to be asked on stage—the questions that attendees would ask themselves if they could.

Additionally, we are committed to a very high editorial standard. The same principles we adhere to in writing for our Web site, allthingsd.com, are followed on the stage. So at D or our other events, you won't find sponsors on the stage. We don't sell stage time as part of the sponsorship package like so many conferences do these days. So, in addition to our own high standards, you won't find any filler.

You're bringing speakers like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook. Talk about protocol and hospitality. Who on the production team handles these matters, and how?
Our executive producers shoulder the responsibility for securing speakers. Once they have a commitment, they turn over contact and management to someone on our team, who then becomes the primary contact for that speaker's office. We stay in close contact throughout the production cycle, as there's a fair amount of hand holding that goes on as we lead up to the conference.

My colleague, Jill Pendergast, has been managing this aspect of the conference, among others, for several years and she's quite accustomed to fielding the myriad requests that come in, from dealing with technical or logistical issues, publicity and PR issues, administrative, security—you name it. Making sure these details are buttoned up in advance makes the on-site experience that much easier to manage.

Once on-site, speakers are invited and encouraged to stick around and participate in the hosted conference activities. While certainly we consider speakers and sponsors V.I.P.s, we think of all of our attendees as V.I.P.s, so we don't whisk speakers away for private functions or hidden-away hospitality suites. We strive to create a classless society where all attendees are treated equally. Even when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates spoke at the conference, they sat in on the sessions and participated in group cocktail parties and meal functions.

Talk a little bit about drawing sponsors. The conference is a hot ticket, and sponsorship opportunities come with access. Is this a major draw?
Access to our high-level audience is indeed a major draw for potential sponsors. We've even sold a sponsorship or two over the years because it came with comped seats to the sold-out conference. That's certainly not typical, but it has indeed happened. While we have had some turnover recently, we tend to have a very high retention rate when it comes to sponsors. Many of them renew their contracts year over year and the relationship becomes an ongoing partnership, which is really ideal. That said, despite all we have in our favor, the sponsorship landscape can be difficult at times. We're very lucky to have a terrific sales team that is constantly prospecting and talking to a growing community of prospects to get the word out.

What's the right sponsor match for the conference? And did you implement any new, innovative opportunities or integrations?

There's incredible value for many sponsors whether they are interested in brand alignment, content alignment or they're seeking a launchpad for a new product. We strive to help sponsors meet their marketing objectives by working closely with them to find interesting and creative ways to engage and delight our audience. We have a relatively standard set of benefits offered to all sponsors, and then beyond that, we work with sponsors to create a unique on-site activation that features their brand, product, or service while enhancing the conference for our savvy attendees. These fun and interesting activations create lasting memories and certainly create awareness and good will for our sponsors.

Some of the more memorable activations have included working with an automotive sponsor to do airport pickups in luxury vehicles, or offer loaner cars to attendees with a simple phone call. We've done contests, or product loaner programs, and one year Kodak brought their ScanVan and we invited attendees to bring old family photos to be digitized. We made it personal and attendees absolutely loved it. One of our long-time sponsors, an investment banker, had a terrific program they ran for several years. They had funded Fandango, and worked with the company to offer free movie tickets to attendees that came by their exhibit area. Again, these were fun and memorable for the attendee, and in each case met the specific needs of the sponsor.

Have you implemented any new technologies this year? For a show about digital content, the expectations among attendees are obviously high.
We're always tweaking something behind the scenes to increase efficiency or quality on the back end of our operations. I'm always being pitched by someone on the team for a bigger, faster, better piece of equipment that will help us get our edited videos online in less time, or some such thing. This year, we have developed a conference app, available for iOS and Android devices, making all the important conference information available to attendees in a digital format—meaning the agenda complete with last minute changes, speaker photos and bios, maps, locations, et cetera—while also facilitating comments about the program and other aspects of the conference, and messaging among attendees. It's certainly new territory for us, but we are excited about it and anxious to see if our attendees find it useful in enhancing their conference experience.

Why is the L.A. region the right match for the conference?
As you can imagine, we have very specific requirements of the venue in terms of technical capabilities, the number of available guest rooms, and certainly the amount and layout of meeting space. So finding the right venue, anywhere, is a tall order for us. That said, our focus is always our attendee and it is our belief that holding the conference on the West Coast is ideal for them. The reason being that our audience is largely comprised of senior executives—all busy people who can't be out of the office for extended periods of time. Hosting the conference on the West Coast allows attendees from the East Coast to travel in the morning, and still participate in afternoon or evening functions on the same day. It saves time. The mild weather and scenic views of the coast are also great for stepping away from the day-to-day hustle, to engage in some serious networking and forward thinking.


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