Most Innovative Meetings 2018: #2 IBM Think

How Big Blue pushes attendees to think about technology in new ways.

By Nancy DePalma January 15, 2019, 6:31 AM EST

Leading into the opening session, giant “think” letters had video mapping.

Photo: Bill Virun/Visually Attractive, Inc.

IBM Think isn’t just a conference. It’s a conversation—albeit one with 30,000 people—about cutting-edge technology and how it can be used to change the world. From AI and cloud to data analysis and security, Think is a forum to showcase the newest developments, so it should come as no surprise that the event is constantly reinventing itself. “The IBM brand and conference teams are always seeking to push the envelope,” said Chris Drury, chief creative officer of Drury Design, which produced the conference with IBM. “As a creative person, that’s exciting to me because I want to do new things.”

The 2018 conference, held at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, kicked off with an opening session at the Innovation Theater, a 360-degree event space that hosted the “five and five—five most powerful technologies that will change the world in the next five years.” While the subject matter was compelling on its own, the drama wasn’t reserved solely for the presentation. Drury accomplished that by creating a highly anticipatory entrance experience. “There were giant ‘think’ letters with video mapping that changed colors, and then dramatic music and a curtain that pulled back to reveal the 360-degree theater,” said Drury. Surrounded by double-sided screens, the presenter laid out the future of technology, from AI microscopes and cryptographic anchors to encryption models.

Showcasing IBM’s latest offerings is only part of what Think is all about. It’s also designed to inspire attendees to think outside their lanes. One way Drury and his team accomplished this was through the introduction of Innovation Talks, a series of TED-style lectures by leading figures from a variety of industries. “The idea behind this was to give attendees a chance to be inspired and expand their minds.” Journalist Lisa Ling spoke about using technology in the fight against human trafficking; Sal Khan remarked on the advancement of education throughout the world via video learning; and Mae Jemison highlighted the importance of STEM education while recounting her adventures in space as the first African-American female astronaut. “The idea behind these talks was to get people to think more horizontally about issues in the world,” Drury said.

“The idea behind this was to give attendees a chance to be inspired and expand their minds.”

With 30,000 industry leaders under one roof, networking remains one of the most important reasons to attend Think, but staging an event that appeals to a wide range of interests and ages is no simple task. This year, Drury and his team held a simultaneous event, with a millennial-minded performance by the Chainsmokers held at the MGM Grand Arena and a Train concert for others at Mandalay Bay. “That way,” he said, “there was something for everyone.”

Think 2018 was particularly innovative in its approach to attendees’ well being. “Usually when you’re at a conference, you’re up early, out late, and eating terribly,” said Drury. Not so here, where mind and body wellness was front and center with group runs, yoga classes, and lectures from lifestyle experts.

While the conference reinvents itself annually, there’s one major change coming for the 2019 Think—the location. “It’s been in Las Vegas for many years, but San Francisco is where tech really lives,” said Drury. Drury Design and their collaborative teams will be tasked with entirely different logistics.

“You’re taking something that was in one location and moving it to the Moscone Convention Center and five different hotels, with attendees staying in over 100 different hotels around the city. It’s a major reimagining project and the challenge for us is to create ways to keep attendees connected when they’re spread across a city.” It’s a challenge that Drury is ready to meet. “IBM is committed to changing the world with technology, whether it’s through social causes or the environment. I’m excited to be part of that challenge and like knowing that we’re helping to make a difference in our small way.”

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Next: #3 Google I/O

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of BizBash.

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