Next Saturday, TEDxUofT’s fifth annual conference, with the theme “Open,” will take place at the Isabel Bader Theatre, located at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. The conference will feature various speakers, including many of UTM’s finest, such as chemistry professor Patrick Gunning, spoken-word poet Tobi Ogude, computer science professor Sanja Fidler, and digital enterprise management student Yannis Guibinga.
It is a day-long conference, featuring speakers and performers who are using the TEDxUofT platform to share their inspiring ideas to not only the 500 attendees sitting within the Isabel Bader Theatre, but to those who may be tuning in through the livestream too—and potentially the rest of the world when the talks go online.
Behind-the-scenes, there is a team of 13 different executives (across all three of U of T campuses), and an even larger army of volunteers, who are hard at work to coordinate the logistics, marketing, and communication behind this event.
Pierre Roquet, a fourth-year UTM CCIT student (specializing in the digital enterprise management program), is the TEDxUofT chair this year.
“I joined [the team] in second year,” says Roquet. “I wanted to just have portfolio pieces when I joined TEDxUofT as a junior designer. But I never had a foray into design before that role, and I ended up moving away from that role anyways. I ended up doing more photography, videography, and the actual stage set-up, which led me to become the technical design director for the years after, where I would organize the live-streaming services, and the photographers—how they would move around the stage—and get the media down to a main hub for people to upload instantaneously.”
As the chair, Roquet is currently responsible “for pretty much everything.”
“I supervise everything—I make sure that most of the stuff is done on time. It’s really difficult because you’re working with students on difficult schedules. […] As a chair, I have to supervise a lot of the departments and subunits, making sure to communicate with each other efficiently and quickly.”
Roquet has found finances to be a challenging part of his role, along with finding suitable meeting times for everyone. “When you organise a meeting time, and a quarter of the team cannot make it, it is very discouraging,” he says.
This year, the conference is scaling down from a 700-person event to a 500-person audience, and the tickets are also cheaper.
“We are scaling down the importance of the food and the venue. We’re really focusing more on the speakers, because the feedback we got the year before was that the venue was excellent, the food was excellent, the whole program was good—but the talks themselves didn’t feel like they were the top of U of T. So we really focused on making sure that TEDx really was ideas worth sharing.”
This meant that Roquet and his team focused on finding the “best” speakers possible, and following up with them to ensure that speakers were rehearsing and polishing their talks—and not making it sound like a lecture.
To host a TEDx conference, organizers must apply for a license from the original TED, which can take up to three months. Details such as the theme, projected date, and projected audience must be shared during this process. There are also guidelines to abide by, such as no sponsorship materials can be present on stage, speaker introductions must be under three seconds, and all talks must be under 18 minutes. There are also guidelines around sponsorships—one guideline discusses who is not allowed to sponsor a TEDx conference. This year, the main sponsors are TD and Manulife, as well as others such as MailChimp and Eventstream.
“This year, the theme is ‘Open’, which is broad and open to interpretation. It can be open-minded or open-sourced.”
One of the speakers for this year’s conference is Gunning.
“I really wanted to get him in—even though he already gave a TEDxMississauga talk. He was super keen on representing the university in more than just the Mississauga region, and so he jumped on board instantaneously. Since he had already given a TEDx talk, and wanted to make a lot of changes here and there, he thought that the talk could be a lot better than the one he gave in Mississauga.”
Roquet has recently taken interest into artificial intelligence and machine learning, and this is reflected in two of the speaker choices (such as Fidler). In fact, according to a recent article in the Toronto Star (“Canadian tech firms optimistic in face to Trump’s immigration restrictions”), Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, are becoming a major hub for artificial intelligence.
Once the actual event is over, there are several administrative tasks to complete, such as finalizing invoices, tallying up the finances, polishing media, and offering feedback to sponsors—and then repeating it all for next year’s conference.
Roquet believes that the most rewarding part of the conference has yet to come: the event itself.
Justin Lee is a third-year statistics and economics student at U of T who is currently completing a co-op. Lee is also the sole marketing director for the team, where he coordinates with various team members (such as the multiple digital marketing editors, graphic designers, and speaker relations representatives) to reach as many students as possible.
Lee joined the TEDxUofT team because he wanted to do an extracurricular in marketing which involved people and his “creative side.”
“I oversee all the marketing […] that includes emails and social media channels,” says Lee.
Lee’s marketing strategies are based on data from last year’s conference titled “Edge.”
“We look at the data from last year. We check to see where the people are coming from, the ones who buy our tickets. We saw that about a third of our tickets sold came from Facebook last year,” says Lee. “We also have emails—people who subscribe to our list get early bird tickets.”
While MailChimp email subscribers (almost 2,000 people) had the chance to call first dibs on tickets, once the tickets (a total of 500) were released to the public, they sold out within the day.
“People can still live-stream, so I’m still trying to reach as many people as possible, and get them to tune in.”
Lee says that the hardest part of his role has been managing and coordinating tasks across the entire team, but that the most rewarding aspect has been “getting to know new people” and “working with a team that’s very good at what they do.”
The TEDxUofT team features two logistics directors: Ellie Warsmann and Serena Gasparitsch. Warsmann is a third-year student based at the St. George campus, completing a double major in physiology and global health, and a minor in psychology.
For Warsmann, the decision to join the TEDxUofT team originally arose because of her friend’s experience. Her friend previously volunteered for a TEDx conference, and found it to be very fun, which inspired Warsmann to volunteer not only in first year, but also in her second year.
“This year, they were hiring for logistics, and so I applied,” recalls Warsmann.
Logistics is a very broad term—and in Warsmann’s words, she and Gasparitsch are “essentially everything that goes into organising the day.”
A large part of it involves the two co-directors finding the most suitable venue and catering options, as well as effectively mobilizing volunteers for the conference.
When it comes to selecting a venue, Warsmann comments that while a large venue is preferable, the intermission period is also an important thing to consider: “In the intermission, we want people to come and be able to mingle with each other—and the speaker. That really limits our options. For example, on campus, we only have two options for that.”
“We’re a non-profit, and we’re all student-run. We can’t charge higher ticket prices, because they have to stay affordable to students, so that limits us. Obviously, there are bigger venues that have the space, but we can’t really rent those out because we’re not charging enough for the tickets.”
In terms of financial accessibility, the team has utilized all available options to keep ticket prices low, such as using an on-campus venue, which allowed for a 20 percent discount.
While there is no practice run of the conference, Warsmann points out that there is a rehearsal day the day before. “It depends on the venue,” says Warsmann. “This year, we are only going to be able to do a sound check.”
However, rehearsals—especially for the speakers—are carried out.
Warsmann has enjoyed “seeing everything come together.” When the conference tickets sold out in less than a day, Warsmann realised that with people buying tickets, “the event is going to be a thing that’s happening next week.”