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Q&A: D9/All Things Digital General Manager on the Tech Conference's Success: "Real Business Occurs Here"

Photo: © 2011 Asa Mathat - All Things Digital

The ninth annual D: All Things Digital conference (known as D9) just wrapped its run, from Tuesday through Thursday, at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. Since its debut in 2003, The Wall Street Journal's conference has been bringing discussions with boldfaced names in media and technology. Due to the demand, D9 sold out weeks before anticipated, with the lineup of speakers for the 650 people in the ballroom including Hewlett-Packard C.E.O. LĂ©o Apotheker, Twitter C.E.O. Dick Costolo, Nokia C.E.O. Stephen Elop, Netflix chairman and C.E.O. Reed Hastings, and Google incoming executive chairman and outgoing C.E.O. Eric Schmidt, and Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger, among other major influencers.

D's creators and executive producers are Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Below are five questions for conference general manager Lia Kennett.

You produce a conference on digital content. What are some of the highest-tech tools you use?
While we are always looking for ways in which technology can help with efficiencies, and streamline our back-office operations or various aspects of the production, we prefer to use solid, time-tested technologies to ensure we can provide the highest-quality experience for our attendees. That said, the technology infrastructure behind D is pretty sophisticated, from ensuring we can accommodate onstage demos to covering the conference happenings on our Web site. Live blogging, wirelessly uploading photos, near real-time editing of videos which are posted to the site within minutes of a session ending—there's a lot that goes into it.

What's the biggest challenge of producing an event with such a high profile in the media and high expectations among attendees?
We have extremely high standards across the board. Content—meaning the quality and relevance of speakers selected to be onstage, the level of customer service we provide, and a constant eye to the attendee experience. We don't compromise these values and commitment to quality. We have learned that when we don't meet our own expectations, we don't meet our customer's expectations either, and we then hear about it. At times, it is challenging to ensure that all of our partners understand this. We have a savvy and sophisticated conference audience, and the usual approach doesn't always work. Translating this quality to the Web site, the most public-facing aspect of the conference, is also a top priority, and keeping the respective teams communicating can also be a challenge. We are constantly evolving and adapting our processes to ensure that we have a cohesive operation.

The conference gift bag is well known. How do you select and vet the products for such a savvy group?
The contents vary year over year, and sometimes it's just luck. We make the opportunity available to speakers, sponsors, and key partners. We know what has gone over very well in the past, and what has flopped, so we do a little bit of guiding and suggesting. I think people are familiar with our audience and understand the value of getting their product or a sample of their service into the hands of this great crowd.

The conference always sells out. Any plans to grow the conference next year or to relocate it?
No plans to grow the event, as we don't want to change the audience dynamic. We're very aware that people come for the networking opportunities, and it gets harder to do that in any meaningful way if the conference is too big. We've decided to expand the franchise in an effort to meet the needs of our growing audience. This past December we launched a smaller, one-day, D conference called "Dive Into Mobile" and will further expand the brand this October with our first international conference, AsiaD, taking place in Hong Kong. As for relocating, no plans at the moment. We have very specific requirements of the venue, both physically and with regard to the technical capabilities. We are committed to the Terranea Resort through 2012 and have been very pleased with the partnership thus far.

What do you suppose is the main draw for guests—content, or networking and face time, or something else?
Two things: the quality and relevance of the speakers and onstage program, and the networking opportunities available here. That said, it's hard to distinguish if one is of greater importance than the other. In 2006 and 2007, when other conferences were going bankrupt and fading away, we sold out earlier than ever, and our waiting list swelled to nearly 500 people. In a down economy, the flight to quality was clear. There's real value to attending D because real business occurs here. Companies are bought and sold, and investments made, talent identified, and relationships forged. There's no replacement for that.

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